Perthes' Disease

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Treatment of almost all medical conditions has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. NICE has issued rapid update guidelines in relation to many of these. This guidance is changing frequently. Please visit https://www.nice.org.uk/covid-19 to see if there is temporary guidance issued by NICE in relation to the management of this condition, which may vary from the information given below.

Synonyms: Calvé-Legg-Perthes disease, Perthes-Calvé-Legg disease

This is a self-limiting hip disorder caused by varying degrees of ischaemia and subsequent necrosis of the femoral head[1]. Characteristic features include:

  • The essential lesion is loss of blood supply (avascular necrosis) of the nucleus of the proximal femoral epiphysis.
  • Abnormal growth of the epiphysis results.
  • Eventual remodelling of regenerated bone.
  • Usually seen in a 3- to 10-year-old child.
  • Incidence of 1 in 10,000 children aged under 15 years.
  • Bilateral in 15%.
  • Male-to-female ratio: 4-5:1[2].
  • Rare in non-Caucasians.

The primary event is avascular necrosis of the femoral epiphysis, which results in delayed ossific nucleus:

  • The articular cartilage is nourished by synovial fluid and continues to grow.
  • The cartilage columns become distorted with some loss of their cellular components.
  • They do not undergo normal ossification, which results in excess of calcified cartilage in the primary trabecular bone.
  • Revascularisation proceeds from peripheral to central.
  • Symptoms occur with subchondral collapse and fracture.
  • Onset is usually over weeks with no history of trauma, and the child typically presents with limitation of hip rotation and a subacute limp sometimes with referred pain to the groin, thigh, or knee.
  • It is typically unilateral, though bilateral involvement is present in 10% of cases.
  • The child is systemically well with no other joint involvement and no evidence of joint inflammation.
  • On examination all movements at the hip are limited. In the early phase there is limited abduction of the hip and limited internal rotation in both flexion and extension.
  • There is an antalgic gait (due to pain) and a Trendelenburg gait is seen in the late phase.
  • Roll test: with the patient lying in the supine position, the examiner rolls the hip of the affected extremity into external and internal rotation. This test should invoke guarding or spasm, especially with internal rotation.

Investigations will include:

  • FBC and ESR.
  • Early X-rays may show widening of the joint space (the best view is frog lateral), or may be normal.
  • Technetium bone scan or MRI scanning can be used to identify pathology (seen as an area of reduced perfusion)[4].
  • Later, there is a decrease in the size of the nuclear femoral head with patchy density on X-ray.
  • Later still, there may be collapse and deformity of the femoral head with new bone formation. Severe deformity of the femoral head risks early arthritis.
  • An arthrogram and/or MRI scan are often needed to assess congruency throughout full range of movement. A flat-topped incongruent head has the worst prognosis. It can rule out hinge abduction where the enlarged femoral head impinges on the acetabular rim.
  • Hip aspiration if a septic joint is suspected. 

The most likely other diagnoses for an acute limp in a child aged 3-10 years are[3]:

  • Transient synovitis.
  • Fracture or soft tissue injury (including stress fracture or non-accidental injury).

Bilateral Perthes' disease

This requires a skeletal survey as part of the work-up.

Unilateral Perthes' disease

  • Septic arthritis.
  • Sickle cell disease.
  • Spondyloepiphyseal dysplasia tarda.
  • Gaucher's disease.
  • Eosinophilic granuloma.
  • Transient synovitis (this was thought to lead to Perthes' disease; however, it is now believed there is no causal relationship).

The goals of treatment include pain and symptom management, restoration of hip range of motion, and containment of the femoral head in the acetabulum.

Non-operative treatment is often indicated for children with bone age less than 6 years, and includes:

  • Restriction of activities and weight-bearing until ossification is complete.
  • Physiotherapy (but there is no strong evidence for the use of orthotics, braces or casts).
  • NSAIDs can be prescribed for pain relief.
  • Good outcomes reported in up to 60% of patients receiving non-operative treatment.

Operative treatments include:

  • Femoral or pelvic osteotomy.
  • Valgus or shelf osteotomies.
  • Hip arthroscopy.
  • Hip arthrodiastasis (controversial).

Most children with Perthes' disease have good outcomes, but pain, osteoarthritis, and ongoing hip dysfunction are common[7]. Hip osteoarthritis rarely develops before 50 years of age[8].

At least 50% of involved hips do well with no treatment. For patients who are less than 6.0 years of age, outcome is good, regardless of treatment[9].

More than 80% of affected hips have good or very good outcomes that persist into the fourth decade of life[6]. However, a retrospective study found that half of all patients eventually required an artificial hip after a median follow-up interval of 50 years.

Prognostic factors include age, limitation of movement, radiologically visible involvement of the femoral head, lateralisation of the femoral head in the acetabulum (subluxation), lateral epiphyseal calcification and metaphyseal cyst formation.

Age under 6 years at the onset of the disease is prognostically favourable because of the higher remodeling potential.

Residual deformities may include coxa magna (broadening of the head and neck of the femur), coxa plana (osteochondritis of the femoral head), coxa breva (structural shortening of the neck of the femur) and hinged abduction (this occurs when an enlarged femoral head is pushed laterally and it impinges on the acetabular rim when the hip is abducted).

Femoral head deformity is well tolerated in short and intermediate terms, but 50% of patients develop disabling arthritis in the sixth decade of life[10].

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Further reading and references

  1. Shah H; Perthes disease: evaluation and management. Orthop Clin North Am. 2014 Jan45(1):87-97. doi: 10.1016/j.ocl.2013.08.005. Epub 2013 Sep 26.

  2. Legg Calve Perthes Disease; Wheeless' Textbook of Orthopaedics

  3. Acute childhood limp; NICE CKS, September 2020 (UK access only).

  4. Perry DC, Bruce C; Evaluating the child who presents with an acute limp. BMJ. 2010 Aug 20341:c4250. doi: 10.1136/bmj.c4250.

  5. Mills S, Burroughs KE; Legg Calve Perthes Disease. StatPearls Publishing. Jan 2020.

  6. Nelitz M, Lippacher S, Krauspe R, et al; Perthes disease: current principles of diagnosis and treatment. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2009 Jul106(31-32):517-23. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2009.0517. Epub 2009 Aug 3.

  7. Larson AN, Sucato DJ, Herring JA, et al; A prospective multicenter study of Legg-Calve-Perthes disease: functional and radiographic outcomes of nonoperative treatment at a mean follow-up of twenty years. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2012 Apr 494(7):584-92. doi: 10.2106/JBJS.J.01073.

  8. Leroux J, Abu Amara S, Lechevallier J; Legg-Calve-Perthes disease. Orthop Traumatol Surg Res. 2018 Feb104(1S):S107-S112. doi: 10.1016/j.otsr.2017.04.012. Epub 2017 Nov 16.

  9. Canavese F, Dimeglio A; Perthes' disease: prognosis in children under six years of age. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 2008 Jul90(7):940-5.

  10. Kim HK, Herring JA; Pathophysiology, classifications, and natural history of Perthes disease. Orthop Clin North Am. 2011 Jul42(3):285-95, v. doi: 10.1016/j.ocl.2011.04.007.

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