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Late Effects of Treatment for Childhood Cancer (PDQ®)

Health Professional Version
Last Modified: 04/04/2014

Late Effects of the Musculoskeletal System

Bone and Joint
        Abnormal bone growth
        Amputation and limb-sparing surgery
        Joint contractures

Essentially all forms of cancer therapy, including surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, can affect the musculoskeletal system of a growing child or adolescent. The following outcomes affecting the musculoskeletal system are discussed: bone and joint late effects (abnormal bone and muscle growth, amputation/limb-sparing surgery, joint contracture, osteoporosis/fractures, osteonecrosis) and changes in body composition (obesity and body fatness). While these late effects are discussed individually, it is important to remember that all of the components within the musculoskeletal system are interrelated. For example, hypoplasia to a muscle group can negatively affect the function of the long bones and the resultant dysfunction can subsequently lead to disuse and osteoporosis.

Bone and Joint

Abnormal bone growth

In an age- and dose-dependent fashion, radiation can inhibit normal bone and muscle maturation and development. Radiation to the head (e.g., cranial, orbital, infratemporal, or nasopharyngeal radiation therapy) can cause craniofacial abnormalities, particularly in children treated before age 5 years or with radiation doses of 20 Gy or more.[1-5] Soft tissue sarcomas, such as orbital rhabdomyosarcoma and retinoblastoma are two of the more common cancer groups with these radiation fields. Often, in addition to the cosmetic impact of the craniofacial abnormalities, there can be related dental and sinus problems.

Radiation therapy can also directly affect the growth of the spine and long bones (and associated muscle groups) and can cause premature closure of the epiphyses, leading to short stature, scoliosis/kyphosis, or limb-length discrepancy.[6-12] Orthovoltage, commonly used before 1970, delivered higher doses of radiation to the bone and was commonly related to abnormalities in bone growth. However, even with contemporary radiation therapy, if the location of the solid tumor is near an epiphysis or the spine, alterations in normal bone development can be difficult to avoid.

The effects of radiation administered to the spine on stature in survivors of Wilms tumor were assessed in the National Wilms Tumor Study (NWTS), studies 1 through 4.[7] Stature loss in 2,778 children treated on NWTS 1 to 4 was evaluated. Repeated height measurements were collected during long-term follow-up. The effects of radiation dosage, age at treatment, and chemotherapy on stature were analyzed using statistical models that accounted for the normal variation in height with gender and advancing age. Predictions from the model were validated by descriptive analysis of heights measured at ages 17 to 18 years for 205 patients. For those younger than 12 months at diagnosis who received more than 10 Gy, the estimated adult-height deficit was 7.7 cm when contrasted with the nonradiation group. For those who received 10 Gy, the estimated trunk shortening was 2.8 cm or less. Among those whose height measurements in the teenage years were available, patients who received more than 15 Gy of radiation therapy were 4 to 7 cm shorter on average than their nonirradiated counterparts, with a dose-response relationship evident. Chemotherapy did not confer additional risk. The effects of radiation on the development of scoliosis have also been re-evaluated. In a group of 42 children treated for Wilms tumor from 1968 to 1994, scoliosis was seen in 18 patients, with only one patient needing orthopedic intervention.[13] Median time to development of scoliosis was 102 months (range 16–146 months). A clear dose-response relationship was seen, with children treated with lower dosages (<24 Gy) of radiation having a significantly lower incidence of scoliosis than those who received more than 24 Gy of radiation. There was also a suggestion that the incidence was lower in patients who received 10 to 12 Gy, the dosages currently used for Wilms tumor, although the sample size was small.

Also, cranial radiation therapy damages the hypothalamic-pituitary axis (HPA) in an age- and dose-response fashion, often leading to growth hormone deficiency (GHD).[14,15] If untreated during the growing years, and sometimes, even with appropriate treatment, this leads to a substantially lower final height. Patients with a central nervous system (CNS) tumor [14,16] or acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) [17-19] treated with 18 Gy or more of cranial radiation therapy are at highest risk. Also, patients treated with total-body irradiation (TBI), particularly single-fraction TBI, are at risk of GHD.[20-23] In addition, if the spine is also irradiated (e.g., craniospinal radiation therapy for medulloblastoma or early ALL therapies in the 1960s), growth can be affected by two separate mechanisms—GHD and direct damage to the spine.

Amputation and limb-sparing surgery

Amputation and limb-sparing surgery prevent local recurrence of bone tumors by removal of all gross and microscopic disease. If optimally executed, both procedures accomplish an en bloc excision of tumor with a margin of normal uninvolved tissue. The type of surgical procedure, the primary tumor site, and the age of the patient affect the risk of postsurgical complications.[24] Complications in survivors treated with amputation include stump-prosthetic problems, chronic stump pain, phantom limb pain, and bone overgrowth.[25,26] While limb-sparing surgeries may offer a more aesthetically pleasing outcome, complications have been reported more frequently in survivors who underwent these procedures than in those treated with amputation. Complications after limb-sparing surgery include non-union, pathologic fracture, aseptic loosening, limb-length discrepancy, endoprosthetic fracture, poor joint movement, and stump-prosthesis problems.[25,27] Occasionally, refractory complications develop after limb-sparing surgery and require amputation.[28,29] A number of studies have compared functional outcomes after amputation and limb-sparing surgery, but results have been limited by inconsistent methods of functional assessment and small cohort sizes. Overall, data suggest that limb-sparing surgery results in better function than amputation, but differences are relatively modest.[25,29] Similarly, long-term quality of life outcomes among survivors undergoing amputation and limb sparing procedures have not differed substantially.[28]

Joint contractures

Hematopoietic cell transplantation with any history of chronic graft-versus-host disease is associated with joint contractures.[30-32]


Maximal peak bone mass is an important factor influencing the risk of osteoporosis and fracture associated with aging. Methotrexate has a cytotoxic effect on osteoblasts, resulting in a reduction of bone volume and formation of new bone.[33,34] This effect may be exacerbated by the chronic use of corticosteroids, another class of agents routinely used in the treatment of hematological malignancies and in supportive care for a variety of pediatric cancers. Radiation-related endocrinopathies, such as GHD or hypogonadism, may contribute to ongoing bone mineral loss.[35,36] In addition, suboptimal nutrition and physical inactivity may further predispose to deficits in bone mineral accretion.

Most of our knowledge about cancer and its treatment effects on bone mineralization has been derived from studies of children with ALL.[24,33] In this group, the leukemic process, and possibly vitamin D deficiency, may play a role in the alterations in bone metabolism and bone mass observed at diagnosis.[37] Antileukemic therapy causes further bone mineral density loss,[38] which has been reported to normalize over time [39,40] or to persist for many years after completion of therapy.[41,42] Clinical factors predicting higher risk of low bone mineral density include treatment with high cumulative doses of methotrexate (>40 g/m2), high cumulative doses of corticosteroids (>9 g/m2), and use of more potent glucocorticoids like dexamethasone.[41,43,44] Investigations evaluating the contribution of cranial radiation to the risk of low bone mineral density in childhood cancer survivors have yielded conflicting results.[41,45] Bone mineral density deficits that are likely multifactorial in etiology have been reported in allogeneic hematopoietic cell transplant recipients conditioned with TBI.[46,47] French investigators observed a significant risk for lower femoral bone mineral density among adult survivors of childhood leukemia treated with hematopoietic stem cell transplantation (HSCT) who had gonadal deficiency.[48] Hormonal therapy has been shown to enhance bone mineral density of adolescent girls diagnosed with hypogonadism after HSCT.[49][Level of evidence: 3iiiC]

Despite disease- and treatment-related risks of bone mineral density deficits, the prevalence of self-reported fractures among Childhood Cancer Survivor Study participants was lower than that reported by sibling controls. Predictors of increased prevalence of fracture by multivariable analyses included increasing age at follow-up, white race, methotrexate treatment, and balance difficulties among females and smoking history and white race among male survivors.[50] Radiation-induced fractures can occur with doses of radiation of 50 Gy or more, as is often used in the treatment of Ewing sarcoma of the extremity.[51,52]


Osteonecrosis (also known as aseptic or avascular necrosis) is a rare, but well-recognized skeletal complication observed predominantly in survivors of pediatric hematological malignancies treated with corticosteroids.[24,53-55] The condition is characterized by death of one or more segments of bone that most often affects weight-bearing joints, especially the hips and knees. Longitudinal cohort studies have identified a spectrum of clinical manifestations of osteonecrosis, ranging from asymptomatic spontaneously-resolving imaging changes to painful progressive articular collapse requiring joint replacement.[56,57] Symptomatic osteonecrosis characterized by pain, joint swelling, and reduced mobility typically presents during the first 2 years of therapy, particularly in the case of ALL. These symptoms may improve over time, persist, or progress in the years after completion of therapy. In some series, up to 40% of patients required some type of surgical procedure.[55] The prevalence of osteonecrosis has varied from 1% to 22% based on the study population, treatment protocol, method of evaluation, and time from treatment.[55,58-62]

The most important clinical risk factor for osteonecrosis is treatment with substantial doses of glucocorticoids, as is typical in regimens used for ALL, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and HSCT.[60,63-66] Delayed intensification therapies for childhood ALL featuring the more potent glucocorticoid, dexamethasone, have been speculated to enhance risk since osteonecrosis was infrequently reported before this approach became more widely used in the 1990s. However, currently available results suggest that cumulative corticosteroid dose may be a better predictor of this complication.[63,67] Higher cholesterol, lower albumin, and higher dexamethasone exposure have been associated with a higher risk of symptomatic osteonecrosis, suggesting that agents like asparaginase may potentiate the osteonecrotic effect of dexamethasone.[62]

Osteonecrosis is more common in adolescents than in children, with the highest risk among those who are older than 10 years.[62,63,67,68] Osteonecrosis also occurs much more frequently in whites than in blacks.[66,67] Studies evaluating the influence of gender on the risk of osteonecrosis have yielded conflicting results, with some suggesting a higher incidence in females [56,67,68] that has not been confirmed by others.[54,56,63] Genetic factors influencing antifolate and glucocorticoid metabolism have also been linked to excess risk of osteonecrosis among survivors.[66] St. Jude Children's Research Hospital investigators observed an almost sixfold (OR, 5.6; 95% confidence interval [CI], 2.7–11.3) risk of osteonecrosis among survivors with polymorphism of the ACP1 gene, which regulates lipid levels and osteoblast differentiation.[62]


Approximately 5% of children undergoing myeloablative stem cell transplantation will develop osteochondroma, a benign bone tumor that most commonly presents in the metaphyseal regions of long bones. Osteochondroma generally occurs as a single lesion, however multiple lesions may develop in the context of hereditary multiple osteochondromatosis.[69] A large Italian study reported a 6.1% cumulative risk of developing osteochondroma at 15 years posttransplant, with increased risk associated with younger age at transplant (≤3 yrs) and use of TBI.[70] Growth hormone therapy may influence the onset and pace of growth of osteochondromas.[23,71] Because malignant degeneration of these lesions is exceptionally rare, clinical rather than radiological follow-up is most appropriate, and surgery for biopsy or resection is generally unnecessary.[72]

Table 13. Bone and Joint Late Effects
Predisposing Therapy Musculoskeletal Effects Health Screening 
CT = computed tomography; DXA = dual-energy x-ray absorptiometry; GVHD = graft-versus-host disease; HSCT = hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
Radiation impacting musculoskeletal systemHypoplasia; fibrosis; reduced/uneven growth (scoliosis, kyphosis); limb length discrepancyExam: bones and soft tissues in radiation fields
Radiation impacting head and neckCraniofacial abnormalitiesHistory: psychosocial assessment, with attention to: educational and/or vocational progress, depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress, social withdrawal
Head and neck exam
Radiation impacting musculoskeletal systemRadiation-induced fractureExam of affected bone
Methotrexate; corticosteroids (dexamethasone, prednisone); radiation impacting skeletal structures; HSCTReduced bone mineral densityBone mineral density test (DXA or quantitative CT)
Corticosteroids (dexamethasone, prednisone)OsteonecrosisHistory: joint pain, swelling, immobility, limited range of motion
Musculoskeletal exam
Radiation with impact to oral cavityOsteoradionecrosisHistory/oral exam: impaired or delayed healing after dental work, persistent jaw pain or swelling, trismus
HSCT with any history of chronic GVHDJoint contractureMusculoskeletal exam
AmputationAmputation-related complications (impaired cosmesis, functional/activity limitations, residual limb integrity, chronic pain, increased energy expenditure)History: pain, functional/activity limitations
Exam: residual limb integrity
Prosthetic evaluation
Limb-sparing surgeryLimb-sparing surgical complications (functional/activity limitations, fibrosis, contractures, chronic infection, chronic pain, limb length discrepancy, increased energy expenditure, prosthetic malfunction [loosening, non-union, fracture])History: pain, functional/activity limitations
Exam: residual limb integrity
Radiograph of affected limb
Orthopedic evaluation

Refer to the Children's Oncology Group Long-Term Follow-Up Guidelines for Survivors of Childhood, Adolescent, and Young Adult Cancers for musculoskeletal system late effects information including risk factors, evaluation, and health counseling.

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