BACKGROUND: Osteonecrosis of the femoral head is a frequent complication in adult patients with sickle cell disease. However, little is known about the natural history of asymptomatic lesions. METHODS: One hundred and twenty-one patients (121 hips) with sickle cell disease and asymptomatic osteonecrosis of the femoral head that was contralateral to a hip with symptomatic osteonecrosis were identified with magnetic resonance imaging between 1985 and 1995. The lesions were graded with use of the Steinberg classification system. The patients were followed with annual plain radiographs. The mean duration of follow-up was fourteen years. RESULTS: At the time of the initial evaluation, fifty-six hips were classified as Steinberg stage 0, forty-two hips were classified as Steinberg stage I, and twenty-three hips were classified as Steinberg stage II. At the time of the most recent follow-up, pain had developed in 110 previously asymptomatic hips (91%) and collapse had occurred in ninety-three hips (77%). Symptoms always preceded collapse. Of the fifty-six hips that were classified as Steinberg stage 0 at the time of the initial evaluation, forty-seven (84%) had symptomatic osteonecrosis and thirty-four (61%) had collapse at the time of the most recent follow-up. Of the forty-two asymptomatic stage-I hips, forty (95%) became symptomatic within three years and thirty-six (86%) had collapse of the femoral head. Of the twenty-three asymptomatic stage-II hips, all became symptomatic within two years and all collapsed; the mean interval between the onset of pain and collapse was eleven months. At the time of the final follow-up, ninety-one hips (75%) had intractable pain and required surgery. CONCLUSIONS: Untreated asymptomatic osteonecrosis of the femoral head in patients with sickle cell disease has a high likelihood of progression to pain and collapse. Because of the high prevalence of complications after total hip arthroplasty in patients with this disease, consideration should be given to early surgical intervention with other procedures in an attempt to retard progression of the disease.
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