Freiberg's Disease

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PatientPlus articles are written by UK doctors and are based on research evidence, UK and European Guidelines. They are designed for health professionals to use, so you may find the language more technical than the condition leaflets.

Synonyms: Freiberg's infraction

This is a rare disease characterised by osteonecrosis of the second metatarsal head, most commonly seen in teenage girls.[1] It was first described in 1914 by Alfred H. Freiberg.[2]

It is difficult to ascertain the true incidence of Freiberg's disease, as many cases may resolve spontaneously before treatment has been sought. Most series in the literature have small numbers.

It occurs during the growth spurt at puberty. Most commonly it is found in young females with a male:female ratio of 1:5.[3] It is also more common in patients whose first metatarsal is shorter than the second metatarsal, which increases the weight on the second metatarsal head. 

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The initial injury, as described by Freiberg, was thought to be repetitive stress with microfractures at the junction of the metaphysis and the growth plate. The fractures deprive the epiphysis of adequate circulation, and there is avascular necrosis of the metatarsal head.

Although the second metatarsal is most often affected, the third metatarsal may also be involved; involvement of the fourth or fifth is rare.

However, despite much subsequent research, the true aetiology remains elusive - it's like to be a combination of vascular compromise, genetic predisposition and altered biomechanics.[4] It is thought to belong to a group of related diseases involving growth disturbances of the epiphysis or apophysis, collectively termed the osteochondroses.

Other osteochondroses include:

  • Köhler's bone disease - tarsal navicular bone
  • Panner's disease - capitulum[5]
  • Blount's disease - proximal tibia
  • Sever's disease - calcaneus
  • Sinding-Larsen and Johansson syndrome - patella
  • Pain in the forefoot, usually localised to the head of the second metatarsal.
  • Usually this is associated with physical activity.
  • Wearing high-heeled shoes makes it worse.
  • There may also be localised swelling and stiffness in the metatarsophalangeal joint.
  • A limp may be visible.

A small effusion may be palpable and a callus may be seen underneath the affected metatarsal head.

Plain X-ray appearance

On X-ray (see 'Classification', below), the second metatarsal head has a flattened appearance with areas of increased sclerosis and fragmentation.[1] 

Bone scans

Bone scanning may demonstrate a centre of reduced activity with a hyperactive collar. 

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

MRI may reveal hypo-intensity of the metatarsal head.[4] 

  • Stage I - the earliest sign is fissuring of the epiphysis. X-ray changes at this stage may be so subtle that they are missed with routine pictures.
  • Stage II - later, central depression of the articular surface becomes evident as subchondral cancellous bone is resorbed. The articular cartilage hinges on an intact plantar bridge.
  • Stage III - the central depression is seen to be resulting in medial and lateral projections at the margins. The plantar hinge remains intact at its plantar isthmus.
  • Stage IV - this stage demonstrates that the central portion has sunk below the surface and is free of the plantar hinge, thus becoming a loose body. Fractures of the medial and lateral projections are present, with folding of the projections over the central loose body.
  • Stage V - the final stage shows marked flattening and deformity of the metatarsal head with secondary degenerative changes. The central loose body may have been resorbed at this stage. The shaft of the metatarsal becomes thickened and dense.

Although originally described 100 years ago, Freiberg's disease remains controversial as to the most appropriate treatment. Most would advocate an initial period of conservative measures.[7] 

General measures

  • Supportive footwear with a metatarsal bar or pad placed beneath the involved bone.[8]
  • Reduce weight-bearing activities for four to six weeks.
  • If symptoms are severe, consider immobilising the foot in a short leg walking cast until the symptoms subside - usually within 3-4 weeks. 

Surgical

This is rarely used, but the most usual indication is failure of conservative treatment. Options include:

  • Debridement
  • Bone grafting
  • Osteotomy[9][10]
  • Arthroplasty
  • Osteochondral transplantation[7] 

Fortunately, the outcomes of both non-operative and operative management are good to excellent and most patients are able to return to previous activity.[4] 

Further reading & references

  1. Lin HT, Liu AL; Freiberg's infraction. BMJ Case Rep. 2013 Jun 18;2013. pii: bcr2013010121. doi: 10.1136/bcr-2013-010121.
  2. Freiberg AH; Infraction of the second metatarsal bone, a typical injury, Surg Gyn Ob, 1914, 19:191.
  3. Katcherian DA; Treatment of Freiberg's disease. Orthop Clin North Am. 1994 Jan;25(1):69-81.
  4. Talusan PG, Diaz-Collado PJ, Reach JS Jr; Freiberg's infraction: diagnosis and treatment. Foot Ankle Spec. 2014 Feb;7(1):52-6. doi: 10.1177/1938640013510314. Epub 2013 Dec 5.
  5. Panner's Disease; Wheeless' Textbook of Orthopaedics
  6. Smillie IS; Treatment of Freiberg's infraction. Proc R Soc Med. 1967 Jan;60(1):29-31.
  7. Cerrato RA; Freiberg's disease. Foot Ankle Clin. 2011 Dec;16(4):647-58. doi: 10.1016/j.fcl.2011.08.008. Epub 2011 Oct 15.
  8. Freiberg's Disease; Wheeless' Textbook of Orthopaedics
  9. Al-Ashhab ME, Kandel WA, Rizk AS; A simple surgical technique for treatment of Freiberg's disease. Foot (Edinb). 2013 Mar;23(1):29-33. doi: 10.1016/j.foot.2012.12.003. Epub 2013 Feb 14.
  10. Lee SK, Chung MS, Baek GH, et al; Treatment of Freiberg disease with intra-articular dorsal wedge osteotomy and absorbable pin fixation. Foot Ankle Int. 2007 Jan;28(1):43-8.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.

Original Author:
Dr Hayley Willacy
Current Version:
Peer Reviewer:
Dr John Cox
Document ID:
8595 (v3)
Last Checked:
16/04/2014
Next Review:
15/04/2019

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