Unicameral bone cyst

Unicameral bone cysts (UBC), also known as simple bone cysts, are common benign non-neoplastic lucent bony lesions that are seen mainly in childhood and typically remain asymptomatic. They account for the S (simple bone cyst) in FEGNOMASHIC, the commonly used mnemonic for lytic bone lesions. 

They are usually found in children in the 1st and 2nd decades (65% in teenagers) and are more common in males (M:F ~ 2-3:1) 2,6.

These lesions are usually asymptomatic and found incidentally, although pain, swelling and stiffness of the adjacent joint also occur. The most frequent complication is a pathological fracture, and this is frequently the cause of presentation 1,2,6.

When uncomplicated by fracture the cysts contain clear serosanguineous fluid surrounded by a fibrous membranous lining. It is thought to arise as a defect during bone growth which fills with fluid, resulting in expansion and thinning of the overlying bone.

During the active phase, the cyst remains adjacent to the growth plate. As the lesion becomes inactive it migrates away from the growth plate (normal bone is formed between it and the growth plate) and it gradually resolves 3,5.

They are typically intramedullary and are most frequently found in the metaphysis of long bones, abutting the growth plate 1. Locations include 1,2,5:

  • proximal humerus: most common 50-60%
  • proximal femur: 30%
  • other long bones
  • occurrence elsewhere is relatively uncommon, and usually occurs in adults
    • spine: usually posterior elements
    • pelvis: only 2% of UBC 1

UBCs can be rarely seen in adults in unusual locations such as in the talus, calcaneus, or the iliac wing.

UBCs are well defined geographic lucent lesions with a narrow zone of transition, mostly seen in skeletally immature patients, which are centrally located and show a sclerotic margin in the majority of cases with no periosteal reaction or soft tissue component. They sometimes expand the bone with thinning of the endosteum without any breach of the cortex unless there is a pathologic fracture. Prominent ridges of bone can appear as pseudotrabeculation on x-ray but in fact, UBC is made of one contiguous cystic space. Rarely, they are truly multiloculated 3.

If there is fracture through this lesion a dependent bony fragment may be seen, and this is known as the fallen fragment sign.

CT and MRI add little to the diagnosis, but are however helpful in eliminating other entities that can potentially mimic a simple bone cyst (see differential diagnosis below).

MR signal characteristics for an uncomplicated lesion include:

  • T1: low signal
  • T2: high signal

Usually there no fluid-fluid levels unless there has been a complication with hemorrhage.

Unicameral bone cyst on bone scintigraphy tends to appear as foci of photopenia (cold spot). However, a pathological fracture would cause an increased radioisotope activity.

Intervention is usually not required for an asymptomatic lesion. If large and threatening to fracture, or causing deformity then an intralesional steroid injection can be performed 3-5. If fractured the bone usually heals normally 5. In some instances, surgery with curettage and bone grafting is required.

General imaging differential considerations include

Bone tumours

The differential diagnosis for bone tumors is dependent on the age of the patient, with a very different set of differentials for the pediatric patient.

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Article information

rID: 7189
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Unicameral bone cyst
  • Unicameral bone cyst (UBC)
  • Simple bone cyst
  • UBC
  • Simple bone cysts
  • Unicameral bone cysts
  • UBC's
  • UBCs

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Cases and figures

  • Figure 1: distribution of unicameral bone cysts
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  • Case 1: with fracture
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  • Case 2
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  • Case 3: with fracture
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  • Case 4
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  • Case 5: with fracture
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  • Case 6: probable UBC
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  • Case 7: with classic "fallen fragment" sign
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  • Case 10: calcaneal cyst
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  • Case 11: with fallen fragment
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  • Case 12: probable UBC
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  • Case 13: healed UBC following fracture
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  • Case 14: with pathological humeral shaft fracture
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    Case 15: with pathological fracture
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  • Case 16: with fracture
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  • Case 17: in an adult
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  • Case 18: tibia
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  • Case 19
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  • Case 20
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