Two patients with the same diagnosis:
What are the findings? What is your diagnosis?
Longitudinal stress fracture of the tibia.
Marrow edema visible on MRI can have multiple etiologies, and may raise concerns of malignancy or osteomyelitis, particularly when a periosteal reaction is present. Other causes of marrow edema include stress reaction, trauma, or secondary changes from adjacent inflammatory arthritis or tenosynovitis. In young patients, red marrow may also mimic or mask marrow edema. The finding of marrow edema should prompt a search for a more specific underlying abnormality. A longitudinal stress fracture of the tibia is a challenging but recognizable diagnosis on MR, and is likely significantly more common than has been previously reported. Patients with longitudinal stress fractures may present with an atypical clinical history, and thus recognition of the characteristic MR appearance of these lesions is critical in making the correct diagnosis.
The tibia is the most common location for the development of stress fractures. Tibial stress fractures are most often found in distance runners, in whom normal bone is subjected to repetitive microtrauma such that the rate of osteoclastic resorption exceeds the rate of repair. Stress fractures of the tibia have been reported to be most frequently transverse in orientation, with a longitudinal orientation in a small minority.1,2,3 It has also been noted that radiographs have a low sensitivity for detection of stress fractures, and therefore relative incidence determinations of fracture orientation based on radiographs are limited in accuracy. Due to its increased sensitivity, bone scan was for some time the favored method for diagnosing early stress injuries. However, the technique has low specificity,3 leaving diagnostic uncertainty particularly in patients that do not have the typical history of distance running. MRI has subsequently become the gold standard for diagnosis of tibial stress fractures and their earlier precursors of stress reaction and periosteal reaction (Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome).
The examples given in the quiz cases show perhaps the most common appearance for a longitudinal fracture of the tibial shaft. The fracture involves a single cortex, and is oriented in a plane radial to the center of the bone, perpendicular to the cortex (Fig. 5).
Several additional examples are presented to demonstrate some of the variations of fracture position, orientation, and clinical history (Figures 6 through 10).
Previous estimates of transverse versus longitudinal stress fracture orientations in the tibial shaft likely underestimated numbers of the latter. On a sample of recent MRI cases performed at our affiliated centers, this proportion appears reversed. Using this gold standard diagnostic technique, it seems likely that longitudinal fractures of the tibial shaft occur more commonly than previously thought and are in fact more common than transversely oriented fractures.
Longitudinal fractures may previously have been underappreciated because transverse fractures are more visible on radiographs than are longitudinal fractures. If an x-ray beam encounters a radial longitudinal fracture line at any angle other than perfect en face alignment, it may be obscured by the adjacent sclerotic borders and at best interpreted as periosteal reaction. Even if the fracture is seen, it may be mistaken for a normal nutrient foramen. Oblique coronal fractures may be even less visible. Meanwhile, a transverse fracture is more likely to extend into the portion of the cortex that is tangent to the beam, and will be distinctly visible. The lower radiographic sensitivity to longitudinally oriented fractures in particular, may be the underlying reason for underestimates of their prevalence. Additional support for this hypothesis is that the typical appearance of a positive bone scan is that of increased uptake over a several centimeter vertical segment.
Clinical Considerations and Underlying Biomechanics
In a running athlete with lower leg pain, the primary differential diagnostic considerations include muscle and tendon injuries, chronic compartment syndrome, shin splints, and stress fracture. Additional differential diagnostic considerations, particularly in patients that are not distance runners, include intermittent claudication, osteomyelitis, and neoplasm.
Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, also known as ‘shin splints”, is an early stage in the continuum that culminates in a stress fracture. The pain is typically posteromedial soreness and the diagnosis is usually made clinically without the need for further imaging assessment. On a microscopic level, repetitive stress leads to osteoclastic resorption exceeding osteoblastic bone regeneration. The associated edema along the periosteum and endosteum of the bone is visible on MRI. Periostitis may be directly caused by traction at muscle or fascial attachments, or may be a response to developing changes in the underlying bone. The relative roles of compressive versus torsional forces in the development of Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome and ultimately stress fractures, has been debated. Recent work appears to favor the latter.4,5 Compressive forces account for the transverse, often subchondral, stress fractures in the proximal tibia. Torsional forces may be of greater significance in the tibial shaft, and may account for the higher number of longitudinal fractures.
Clinical histories in patients with stress fractures may be atypical. An example is that of a case presented by a perplexed infectious disease specialist. A patient with a remote history of a gunshot wound and a gradual onset of lower leg pain had been referred to him after a bone scan and MRI performed at an outside institution were interpreted as positive for osteomyelitis. However, labs were normal for WBC and ESR. On further review of the MRI, a longitudinal stress fracture of the tibial shaft was identified. To remove any lingering doubt, the finding was additionally confirmed by subsequent CT. The MRI also showed an unusual pattern of muscle atrophy, evidently from the old gunshot injury. Chronic muscle imbalance from muscle injury was likely the underlying cause of the stress fracture that developed years after the initial trauma.
Clues to the MRI diagnosis of longitudinal fracture of the tibial shaft include edema distribution along the endosteum and periosteum of one cortex, most often posteriorly or anteromedially. The axial images are frequently diagnostic, demonstrating a linear lucency on multiple sequential images, and often endosteal and periosteal callus formation.6 The sagittal or coronal sequences are helpful in demonstrating the length of involvement and the site of greatest edema, which indicates the most likely fracture site. A fracture line is occasionally visible on the coronal or sagittal sequences, depending on fortuitous positioning of the image slice relative to the affected cortex.
An imaging pitfall in the diagnosis of stress fractures is that of a normal nutrient foramen. Nutrient foramina course obliquely through the tibial cortex, and exhibit a round shape on axial images, progressing from the inner to the outer cortical surfaces. An associated vessel can typically be seen extending beyond the foramen, within the marrow space as well as external to the bone.
MRI is well suited for distinguishing between stress fractures and pathologic fractures. Well-demarcated T1 signal abnormality, endosteal scalloping, and an adjacent soft tissue mass are each indicators of neoplasm rather than stress fracture.7
When a distinct fracture is not seen and a typical history is not present, the diagnosis may not be definitive. Additional correlation with further clinical history is often necessary. Laboratory analysis assists in excluding the possibility of osteomyelitis. Although CT will not detect the edema and periosteal reaction visible on MRI in early stages of Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome, imaging with thin-section CT may allow more detailed osseous assessment and clearer depiction of a fracture line.8 Another alternative, if confirmation is needed, is a follow-up MRI study following a period of limited weight-bearing or cessation of the inciting activity. This should show improvement or resolution of abnormalities.
Once the diagnosis of tibial stress injury is established by clinical or imaging assessment, a treatment plan can be determined based on injury severity. Symptomatic patients with stress reaction and no fracture can be treated with non-impact training, while a fracture may require casting for six weeks. It has recently been found that low grades of tibial stress injury, i.e. periosteal and marrow edema, can be seen in nearly half of asymptomatic collegiate distance runners and that the findings are not predictive of future stress fracture.9 This emphasizes the importance of correlating the MRI findings with the clinical findings before making therapeutic decisions.
Longitudinal fractures of the tibial shaft are most often caused by repetitive torsional loading in distance runners as the endpoint of a continuum of medial stress injury, although patients may present with an atypical clinical history. Longitudinal tibial shaft fractures are more common than has been previously reported, likely due to the low sensitivity of radiographs for this fracture orientation. An astute MRI reader can often make a definitive diagnosis of a longitudinal fracture upon finding a linear cleft on sequential axial images, bordered by a longitudinal rim of endosteal and periosteal callus, and accompanied by endosteal and periosteal edema. Less typical fracture orientations and earlier stages of stress reaction can also be confidently diagnosed by MRI, although correlation with clinical labs, additional imaging with CT, or follow-up MRI after a period of rest may be useful when findings are atypical.
1 Allen GJ. Longitudinal Stress Fractures of the Tibia: Diagnosis with CT. Radiology 1988; 167:799-801.
2 Jeske JM, Lomasney LM, Demos TC, Vade A, Bielski RJ. Longitudinal tibial stress fracture. Orthopedics. 1996 Mar;19(3):263; 66; 68; 70.
3 Shearman CM, Brandser EA, et al. Longitudinal Tibial Stress Fractures: A Report of Eight Cases and Review of the Literature. Journal of Computer Assisted Tomography. 22(2):265-269, March/April 1998.
4 Taylor D, O’Reilly P, Vallet L, Lee TC. The fatigue strength of compact bone in torsion. J Biomech. 2003 Aug;36(8):1103-9.
5 Bouch” RT and Johnson CH. Medial Tibial Stress Syndrome (Tibial Fasciitis). A Proposed Pathomechanical Model Involving Fascial Traction. Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association., Volume 97 Number 1 31-36 2007.
6 Umans HR, Kaye JJ. Longitudinal stress fractures of the tibia: diagnosis by magnetic resonance imaging. Skeletal Radiol. 1996 May;25(4):319-24.
7 Fayad LM, Kawamoto S, Kamel IR, et al. Distinction of Long Bone Stress Fractures from Pathologic Fractures on Cross-Sectional Imaging: How Successful Are We” Am. J. Roentgenol., October 1, 2005; 185(4): 915 – 924.
8 Gaeta M, Minutoli F, Scribano E, et al. CT and MR Imaging Findings in Athletes with Early Tibial Stress Injuries: Comparison with Bone Scintigraphy Findings and Emphasis on Cortical Abnormalities. Radiology, May 1, 2005; 235(2): 553 – 561.
9 Bergman AG, Fredericson M, Ho C, and Matheson GO. Asymptomatic Tibial Stress Reactions: MRI Detection and Clinical Follow-Up in Distance Runners. Am. J. Roentgenol., September 1, 2004; 183(3): 635 – 638.