IM Board Review

Ankle pain in a young woman with Gaucher disease

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A 20-year-old woman with Gaucher disease presents with pain in her right ankle and in her back. She has had the ankle pain for the past 12 months and the back pain for the past 2 years. She describes the ankle pain as stabbing and moderately severe. It is constant, present both at rest and during physical activity, but aggravated by walking and twisting movements. She has noticed grinding and clicking sounds as she moves her ankle. The ankle pain has worsened over the past several months.

She says her back pain is similar to her ankle pain but less severe. She also reports generalized mild aches and bone pain. No other joints are involved. She has no history of fever, chills, or trauma.


Her Gaucher disease was diagnosed at age 4 when she presented with failure to thrive and with thrombocytopenia and splenomegaly. She and was found to have an N370S/IVS2+1 mutation of the GBA gene. She underwent removal of 90% of her spleen at the time of diagnosis and was on enzyme replacement therapy with imiglucerase until 3 years ago, when the treatment was stopped because the drug had become unavailable (because of a temporary closure of the manufacturing facility), and because she had developed neutralizing antibodies to it. Despite a dosage as high as 120 U/kg every 2 weeks (the recommended range is 2.5 U/kg three times a week up to 60 U/kg every 2 weeks), her anemia and thrombocytopenia worsened to the point that she became dependent on transfusion of red blood cells and platelets. She has also taken glucocorticoids at various times in the past as a premedication before enzyme replacement therapy.

About 3 years ago, she developed dryness of the skin, pruritus, shiny skin, hardening of the skin, and decreased oral aperture, which was diagnosed as scleroderma.

During the past 5 years, she has had multiple episodes of pale coloration of her skin on exposure to cold, suggestive of Raynaud phenomenon. And for the past 5 months, she has noticed a burning sensation in her throat and retrosternal pain, suggestive of gastroesophageal reflux disease.

She is a college student, with no history of smoking or use of alcohol or recreational drugs. She is sexually active, with no history of sexually transmitted disease, and she uses condoms and oral contraceptives for contraception.

Her father and mother are both carriers of Gaucher disease. She is not of Ashkenazi Jewish descent.


On physical examination, her temperature, blood pressure, pulse, and respiratory rate are within normal limits. She has extensive tattooing on her upper chest to hide scarring from previous cannulation ports. The right ankle joint is moderately swollen but shows no other signs of inflammation; its range of motion is limited by severe pain. She has tenderness of the spinous processes and paraspinal area, in addition to multiple tender points in the thoracolumbar area. Palpation of the right hip reveals tenderness of the groin and trochanteric bursa.

No lymphadenopathy, hepatomegaly, splenomegaly, or abdominal masses are noted. Neurologic examination is essentially nonfocal.

Her current medications include omeprazole, ergocalciferol, calcium carbonate, gabapentin, citalopram, and celecoxib. She also takes a multivitamin daily.

1. Which is the most likely underlying cause of her ankle pain?

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Gaucher disease
  • Septic arthritis
  • Avascular necrosis secondary to steroid use

Rheumatoid arthritis varies in its presentation. It is usually insidious in onset, migratory, and intermittent, with polyarticular or even monoarticular involvement, and it presents with pain, stiffness, and swelling of the joint.1 Most often affected are the metacarpophalangeal, proximal interphalangeal, wrist, and metatarsophalangeal joints. Involvement of large joints of the upper and lower limbs is also common.2 This is not the most likely cause of this patient’s symptoms, based on the history and the current presentation.

Gaucher disease is a lipidosis caused by accumulation of cellular glycolipids, especially glucocerebrosides, due to deficiency of the enzyme beta-glucosidase. Clinical manifestations include hepatomegaly, splenomegaly, and bone marrow disease presenting as anemia, thrombocytopenia, or skeletal disease.3 Skeletal involvement in Gaucher disease includes bone pain, bone infarcts, and lytic lesions.

Whether splenectomy predisposes the patient to bone manifestations is controversial. Some believe that splenectomy decreases the total body reservoir for the storage of glycolipids and predisposes to their deposition in bone, which in turn results in cortical thinning, impaired remodeling, and decreased intraosseous blood flow, leading to osteonecrosis and fractures.4 This is more common in patients with type 1 Gaucher disease who have undergone splenectomy. (Types 2 and 3 are much rarer, occurring mainly in children; central nervous system involvement is a key feature. A discussion of these types is beyond the focus of this paper.) However, some studies suggest that the increase in bone manifestations after splenectomy may be simply because of severe disease.5 It should be noted that, since the advent of enzyme replacement therapy for Gaucher disease, splenectomy is now rarely performed.6

Anemia is also considered an independent risk factor for the development of avascular necrosis in type 1 Gaucher disease.7 Osteonecrosis due to Gaucher disease is relatively common in the femur, tibia, and humerus and uncommon in the ankle joints.8

Septic arthritis is unlikely in this patient in the absence of fever or signs of inflammation of the joint. Her long-standing history of ankle pain would also be unusual for infection, but a superimposed infectious process should always be suspected in an arthritic joint.

Avascular necrosis secondary to steroid use. Glucocorticoids are notorious for their adverse effects on bone. They induce osteocyte apoptosis and a decrease in bone remodeling, potentially predisposing to osteonecrosis.9 There is a high incidence of osteoporosis, osteonecrosis, and fracture risk with glucocorticoid therapy, and the incidence is dose-dependent. Discontinuation of the drug only partially restores fracture risk to baseline levels.10,11

A meta-analysis of cohort studies with a total sample size of about 42,000 reported an increased risk of fracture at all ages with the use of glucocorticoids.12 Because the minimum dosage and duration of therapy to prevent glucocorticoid-induced osteoporosis are not known, the only recommendation is to keep the dosage as low as possible.13

Glucocorticoid therapy is the most common cause of nontraumatic avascular necrosis. The risk of osteonecrosis in patients on long-term glucocorticoid therapy may be as high as 40%.14 The risk is increased with prolonged treatment and with high doses, but it can also occur with short-term exposure to high doses. The increased risk has been shown to persist for as long as 2 years after the drugs are discontinued.15 Glucocorticoid-induced bone disease commonly affects the hip and vertebrae.

At this stage of the workup, we cannot completely rule out glucocorticoid use as the cause. However, after considering this patient’s presentation and the key features of the other diagnoses, her ankle pain and back pain are more likely caused by her preexisting Gaucher disease.


Initial laboratory tests (Table 1) reveal severe anemia and thrombocytopenia. Bone marrow biopsy of the iliac crest done as part of the workup for these conditions shows extensive bone marrow space replacement by histiocytic infiltrate, consistent with Gaucher disease. No other marrow process is observed.

Radiography of the ankle (Figure 1) shows a subtle lucency in the talar dome with minimal subarticular collapse seen on the lateral view, suggestive of avascular necrosis and diffuse osteopenia. Joint spaces are maintained.

Figure 1. A radiograph of the right ankle at the time of presentation shows evidence of talar dome col-lapse (arrow) due to avascular necrosis of the talus body.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the ankle shows numerous bone infarcts with an approximately 15-mm region of mild articular surface collapse in the central and lateral aspect of the talar dome.

MRI of the back shows extensive abnormal bone marrow signal intensity throughout the spine, compatible with a marrow replacement process. Patchy nonexpansile T2/stir hyperintensity with serpiginous enhancement within the T9, T11, T12, L2, and L3 vertebral bodies as well as throughout the entire sacrum is consistent with bone infarct.

2. Based on the results of radiographic studies, which is most likely the immediate cause of her ankle pain?

  • Talar avascular necrosis secondary to rheumatoid arthritis
  • Talar avascular necrosis secondary to Gaucher disease
  • Trauma-induced fracture of the talus
  • Plantar fasciitis

Of the bones of the feet, the talus is unique. It is the second largest of the tarsal bones and does not have muscular or tendinous attachments. Sixty percent of the talus bone is covered by articular cartilage,16 so only a limited area is available for penetration of blood vessels. Also, small nutrient vessels and variations of intraosseous anastomoses with a lack of collateral circulation predispose the talus to osteonecrosis when the vascular supply is compromised.16

Radiographic evidence of avascular necrosis is the presence of bone that is more radiopaque than normal bone; this is necrotic bone surrounded by osteopenic bone. Avascular necrosis causes hyperemia and resorption of bone. The resorption does not take place in necrotic bone because of the lack of a vascular supply, and so it appears radiopaque, whereas the bone surrounding the necrotic bone becomes osteopenic and radiolucent.

The sclerotic rim of a bone infarct is also enhanced by an attempted healing process in which new bone forms on the surface of necrotic trabeculae, a process known as “creeping substitution.” This gives a typical sclerotic picture of the talus.

MRI is the most sensitive technique for detecting osteonecrosis. A characteristic radiographic pattern is seen with osteonecrosis of the talus starting with talar dome opacity, followed by deformity and, in severe cases, articular collapse and bone fragmentation.17

The radiograph in our patient’s case is not consistent with features of rheumatoid arthritis or traumatic fracture of the talus. In plantar fasciitis, radiographs are used to rule out other pathologies of the foot, and the only finding may be a bone spur seen at the site of pain. The bone spur is not the cause of pain in plantar fasciitis but may be a result of the plantar fasciitis itself.

Therefore, avascular necrosis secondary to Gaucher disease is most likely the immediate cause of her ankle pain.

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