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Osteoblastoma: What patients should know about
Jun 18, 2024, 17:14

Osteoblastoma: What patients should know about

What is Osteoblastoma?

Osteoblastoma is a rare, benign bone tumor that primarily affects young people, particularly males between the ages of 10 and 30. Although it is noncancerous, it can cause significant discomfort and complications if not treated properly. This article aims to provide a comprehensive overview of osteoblastoma, including its causes, symptoms, diagnosis, prevention, prognosis, treatment options, and the latest research developments.

Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of osteoblastoma is still unknown. However, certain factors may increase the likelihood of developing this tumor:

  • Age: Most commonly affects individuals between 10 and 30 years old.
  • Gender: Males are more frequently affected than females.
  • Genetic Factors: Although not well understood, genetic predispositions may play a role.

Symptoms of osteoblastoma

  • Pain: This is the most common symptom of osteoblastoma. The pain is often described as a dull, aching sensation that gradually worsens over time. Unlike other bone conditions like osteoid osteoma, the pain caused by osteoblastoma is typically not relieved by nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or aspirin. The reason for this persistent pain is that the tumor actively destroys healthy bone tissue and replaces it with abnormal, weaker bone material called osteoid. This process causes inflammation and pressure on surrounding structures, leading to continuous discomfort.
  • Swelling and Tenderness: As the osteoblastoma grows, it can cause swelling and tenderness in the affected area. The swelling occurs due to the accumulation of the abnormal osteoid bone material produced by the tumor, which can put pressure on the surrounding tissues. The tenderness is likely caused by the inflammation and irritation of the nearby muscles, nerves, and other structures as the tumor expands.
  • Neurological Symptoms: If the osteoblastoma is located in the spine, it can cause a range of neurological symptoms. As the tumor grows, it may impinge on the spinal cord or the nerve roots exiting the spine, leading to symptoms such as back pain, muscle spasms, numbness, weakness, or radiating pain in the arms or legs. In severe cases, if the tumor compresses the spinal cord significantly, it can even cause loss of bowel or bladder control.
  • Pathologic Fractures: The osteoid bone material produced by the osteoblastoma is weaker and less dense than normal bone tissue. As a result, the affected bone becomes more susceptible to fractures, even with minimal trauma or stress. These fractures, known as pathologic fractures, occur due to the weakening of the bone structure by the tumor. It’s important to note that the severity and specific combination of symptoms can vary depending on the location and size of the osteoblastoma. For example, tumors in the spine may cause more neurological symptoms, while those in the extremities (arms or legs) may lead to swelling, weakness, or limping. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to prevent further bone destruction and potential complications.


Diagnosing osteoblastoma involves several steps, each crucial for ensuring an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan:

Medical History and Physical Examination

A thorough medical history and physical examination are essential. The patient may be asked about his symptoms, including the duration, intensity, and nature of the pain, as well as any other associated symptoms like swelling or neurological issues. The healthcare provider can also inquire about any previous injuries or medical conditions that might be relevant. During the physical examination, the provider may look for tenderness over the bone and check the range of motion in the affected area. This helps to identify any limitations in movement or pain that might be associated with the tumor.

Imaging Tests

Imaging tests are critical for visualizing the tumor and understanding its characteristics. Several types of imaging tests may be used:

  • X-rays: X-rays provide images of dense structures like bones and can help identify the presence of a tumor. Osteoblastomas typically appear as well-defined, radiolucent (dark) areas on X-rays, often with a thin shell of new bone around them. This initial imaging can give a good overview of the tumor’s size and location.
  • CT Scans: Computed Tomography (CT) scans offer detailed cross-sectional images of the bone and surrounding tissues. CT scans are particularly useful for determining the tumor’s size, extent, and its relationship with nearby structures. They can reveal the internal structure of the tumor, including any calcifications or areas of bone destruction.
  • MRI Scans: Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is useful for assessing the involvement of soft tissues and the spinal cord. MRI scans provide high-resolution images that can show the tumor’s impact on surrounding muscles, nerves, and other soft tissues. This is especially important for tumors located near the spine, where they might compress the spinal cord or nerve roots.
  • Bone Scans: Bone scintigraphy, or bone scans, can detect increased bone activity, which may indicate the presence of a tumor. During this test, a small amount of radioactive material is injected into the bloodstream. The material accumulates in areas of high bone activity, such as a tumor, and is detected by a special camera. This test can help identify the exact location and extent of the tumor, especially in cases where multiple areas might be affected.

This image is taken from orthoinfo.aaos.org


A biopsy is often necessary to confirm the diagnosis of osteoblastoma. This involves taking a small sample of the tumor tissue and examining it under a microscope. There are different methods for performing a biopsy:

  • Needle Biopsy: In this minimally invasive procedure, a needle is used to extract a small sample of tissue from the tumor. This is usually done under local anesthesia to numb the area. Needle biopsies are often guided by imaging techniques like CT or ultrasound to ensure accurate sampling.
  • Open Biopsy: In some cases, a small surgical procedure is performed to obtain a tissue sample. This is done under general anesthesia, and a small incision is made to access the tumor. Open biopsies are typically used when a larger or more representative sample is needed for diagnosis.

The biopsy sample is then analyzed by a pathologist, who examines the cells and tissue structure to confirm the presence of osteoblastoma. This microscopic examination can reveal the characteristic features of osteoblastoma, such as the formation of osteoid (new bone material) and the presence of osteoblasts (bone-forming cells).

Additional Diagnostic Considerations

  • Histopathological Examination: The histopathological examination of the biopsy sample is crucial for distinguishing osteoblastoma from other similar conditions, such as osteoid osteoma or osteosarcoma.
  • Differential Diagnosis: It is important to differentiate osteoblastoma from other bone lesions that may present with similar symptoms. Conditions such as osteoid osteoma, aneurysmal bone cyst, and fibrous dysplasia can have overlapping features. The combination of clinical presentation, imaging findings, and histopathological examination helps in making an accurate diagnosis.
  • Advanced Imaging Techniques: In some cases, advanced imaging techniques like Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans or Magnetic Resonance Angiography (MRA) may be used. PET scans can help in assessing the metabolic activity of the tumor, while MRA can evaluate the involvement of blood vessels, especially in spinal tumors.


Currently, there are no established measures for the primary prevention of osteoblastoma. Since the exact cause is unknown, it is challenging to recommend specific preventive strategies.


The prognosis for osteoblastoma is generally good, especially when the tumor is detected early and treated appropriately. Most patients are cancer-free after surgical treatment. However, there is a risk of recurrence, particularly if the tumor is not completely removed.

Treatment and Side Effects

Surgical Treatment

Surgery is the primary treatment for osteoblastoma. The goal is to completely remove the tumor. The type of surgery depends on the tumor’s location and size:

  • Curettage: This involves scraping out the tumor from the bone. After the tumor is removed, the resulting cavity may be filled with bone graft material. This graft can come from a donor (allograft) or from another bone in the patient’s body (autograft). Sometimes, bone graft substitutes or bone cement are used to fill the defect. Plates and screws may be necessary to support the bone during healing, especially if the tumor was large or located in a structurally critical area.
  • En Bloc Resection: This procedure involves removing the tumor along with a margin of healthy tissue surrounding it. This method is often recommended for more aggressive or recurrent tumors. En bloc resection aims to ensure that no tumor cells are left behind, reducing the risk of recurrence. However, this type of surgery can be more complex and may involve reconstructive procedures to restore the affected bone’s function and appearance.

Side Effects

The side effects of treatment can vary depending on the type of surgery and the tumor’s location.

Common side effects include:

  • Pain and Swelling: Post-surgical pain and swelling are common but usually temporary. Pain management strategies, including medications and physical therapy, can help alleviate discomfort during the recovery period.
  • Infection: There is a risk of infection at the surgical site. Signs of infection include redness, warmth, increased pain, and discharge from the wound. Prompt medical attention and antibiotics are necessary to treat infections and prevent complications.
  • Neurological Complications: If the tumor is located near the spinal cord or other critical nerves, there may be a risk of neurological complications. These can include numbness, weakness, or even paralysis in severe cases. Careful surgical planning and techniques are essential to minimize these risks.
  • Blood Loss: Significant blood loss can occur during surgery, especially in procedures involving large tumors or complex anatomical areas like the spine. Blood transfusions may be necessary in some cases.
  • Bone Weakness and Fractures: The removal of a tumor can leave the affected bone weakened and more susceptible to fractures. Bone grafting and the use of supportive hardware (plates, screws) can help stabilize the bone and promote healing.
  • Recurrence: Osteoblastoma has a risk of recurrence, particularly if the tumor is not completely removed. Regular follow-up appointments and imaging studies are crucial to monitor for any signs of recurrence and address them promptly.
  • Functional Impairment: Depending on the tumor’s location and the extent of surgery, there may be temporary or permanent functional impairments. For example, tumors in the spine may affect mobility and require rehabilitation to regain strength and function.
  • Scarring and Cosmetic Concerns: Surgical procedures can leave scars, and in some cases, reconstructive surgery may be needed to address cosmetic concerns, especially if the tumor was located in a visible area.

Non-Surgical Treatment

Non-surgical treatments are generally not effective for osteoblastoma. Radiation therapy and chemotherapy are not typically used due to the risk of secondary cancers and other complications. However, in certain cases where the tumor cannot be safely removed surgically, alternative treatments may be considered:

  • Cryotherapy: This involves freezing the tumor to kill the cancerous cells. It is sometimes used when the tumor is in a location that makes surgical removal difficult.
  • Radiofrequency Ablation (RFA): This technique uses heat generated by radio waves to destroy the tumor cells. It is another option for tumors that are not easily accessible by surgery.
  • Radiation Therapy: Although not commonly used, radiation therapy may be considered in rare cases where the tumor is located in a challenging area, such as the spine, and cannot be completely removed surgically. Radiation can help shrink the tumor and alleviate symptoms.

Newest Options and Ongoing Trials

Research is ongoing to find better ways to treat osteoblastoma. Some of the latest developments include:

  • Advanced Imaging Techniques: New imaging technologies are helping to better define the extent of tumors, aiding in more precise surgical planning.
  • Targeted Therapies: Research is being conducted to develop drugs that specifically target the tumor cells without affecting healthy tissue.
  • Immunotherapy: Although primarily used for malignant tumors, immunotherapy is being explored as a potential treatment for aggressive forms of osteoblastoma.

More information about ongoing studies can be found on clinicaltrials.gov

Treatment of osteoblastoma can come with its own set of challenges. Long-term follow-up is essential to monitor for recurrence and manage any complications that arise from treatment. Common issues faced by the patients include chronic pain, reduced mobility, and significant psychological impact on the patient.


Osteoblastoma is a rare but treatable bone tumor. Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment are crucial for a good prognosis. Ongoing research continues to improve our understanding and management of this condition, offering hope for even better outcomes in the future. For those affected, a multidisciplinary approach involving surgeons, radiologists, and other healthcare professionals is essential to ensure comprehensive care and support.


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