Clinical presentation and imaging of bone and soft-tissue sarcomas

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The clinical presentation of bone and soft-tissue sarcomas is varied. Constitutional symptoms are rare, and although bone sarcomas tend to be painful while soft-tissue sarcomas usually are not, there are exceptions to this general rule. A high index of suspicion is required for any unexplained mass with indeterminate imaging findings. Choosing the right imaging modality is critical to the diagnosis and management of patients with suspected sarcoma, and referring clinicians have a multitude of imaging options. After discovery of a malignant-appearing bone lesion by radiography, further imaging is obtained for better characterization of the lesion (typically with magnetic resonance imaging [MRI]) and for staging (typically with computed tomography of the chest). In contrast, radiographs are rarely helpful for evaluation of soft-tissue lesions, which almost always require MRI assessment.



Sarcomas are rare neoplasms arising from connective tissue elements of the body. Approximately 80% arise in soft tissue, while the remainder originate in bone.1 Soft-tissue sarcomas are tumors of the mesenchymal system, and about half develop in the extremities. Bone sarcomas are characterized by their location in bone and sometimes produce osteoid, or immature bone.

The most common types of soft-tissue sarcomas are malignant fibrous histiocytoma (although this term has lost favor with some pathologists) and liposarcoma.

The most common types of bone sarcomas are osteosarcoma (a sarcoma that makes osteoid or bone), Ewing sarcoma (composed of small round blue cells with a characteristic chromosomal translocation), and chondrosarcoma (a sarcoma that makes chondroid tissue, or cartilage).


Approximately 10,600 new cases of soft-tissue sarcoma and 2,570 new cases of bone sarcoma were estimated to have been diagnosed in the United States in 2009.2,3 For perspective, the annual incidence of soft-tissue sarcoma is approximately 5.5% that of breast cancer and approximately 5% that of lung cancer.3

Most sarcomas develop in the lower extremities, although the age groups at greatest risk vary among sarcoma types.4

Soft-tissue sarcomas develop most commonly in the thigh and occur primarily in adults.2

Osteosarcomas are the most common bone sarcoma and develop most frequently in 10- to 20-year-olds; their most common location is the distal femur.5–8 Metastatic osteosarcoma is found in approximately 20% of patients at the time of osteosarcoma diagnosis. Osteosarcomas mainly spread hematogenously, and the lungs are the most common initial site of metastases, being affected in up to 90% of patients with metastatic disease.9

Ewing sarcomas develop most often in the long bones of the extremities or bones of the pelvis. The large majority of cases develop in patients aged 10 to 15 years. 5–8

Chondrosarcomas represent approximately 20% of all bone sarcomas and primarily affect older adults, with a peak incidence in the sixth decade of life.10


Presentation is highly variable

The clinical presentation of patients with bone or soft-tissue sarcoma is highly variable. Patients often present with a mass, typically one that is increasing in size. In general, bone sarcomas are painful and soft-tissue sarcomas are not, but there are exceptions to this general rule. Constitutional symptoms are rare in patients with bone or soft-tissue sarcomas, but symptoms such as fever, malaise, and weight loss can be seen, especially in patients with Ewing sarcoma.11

Delayed presentation and diagnosis are common

Particularly when a sarcoma is painless, patients sometimes do not seek medical attention until a suspicious mass becomes quite large. Certain tumors, such as synovial sarcoma, a high-grade soft-tissue sarcoma often seen in young adults, may present as a slowly growing or stable-appearing mass over several years. In one study of 33 children with synovial sarcoma, the mean duration of symptoms was 98 weeks (range, 2–364), the mean patient delay before a doctor was seen was 43 weeks (0–156), the mean doctor delay before a correct diagnosis was made was 50 weeks (0–362), and the mean number of doctors seen before referral was 3 (1–6).12 For nearly half the patients in this study (15), the diagnosis was obtained only after unplanned excision, meaning that the surgeon did not expect a malignancy at the time of biopsy. Because delayed presentation is not uncommon in cases of bone or soft-tissue sarcoma, every patient with a mass with indeterminate imaging findings should be referred to or reviewed by an orthopedic or musculoskeletal oncologist.

Biopsy is gold standard for diagnosis

A comprehensive medical history and physical examination are essential at the initial presentation of patients with masses and/or pain suggestive of bone or soft-tissue sarcoma. Sarcoma simulators such as hematoma, metastatic disease, or infection can sometimes be ruled out by careful clinical examination, laboratory work-up, and appropriate imaging, but the gold standard for diagnosis is a biopsy. Moreover, an index of suspicion is required to rule out primary malignancy in any soft-tissue or bone lesion, and this index of suspicion will allow for referral or appropriate selection of the site for biopsy.

Biopsy considerations, as well as further detail on clinical presentation, are provided in the second and third articles in this supplement, which focus, respectively, on bone sarcoma and soft-tissue sarcoma. The remainder of this article reviews the use of imaging for the evaluation of suspected sarcomas, as imaging findings typically prompt or guide biopsy of a suspicious mass. Choosing the right imaging modality is critical to the diagnosis and management of patients with suspected sarcoma.


Figure 1. Imaging studies in a 14-year-old girl with a knee mass. (A) Lateral radiograph showing cloud-like osteoid mineralization (arrows) consistent with osteosarcoma. (B) Follow-up post-contrast T1-weighted MRI in the coronal plane shows evidence of significant tumor necrosis with enhancement confined to the tumor periphery (arrows), which correlates well with the absence of intratumoral metabolic activity centrally on a cross-sectional FDG-PET image (C).
Radiography. Despite recent advances in cross-sectional imaging with computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), radiographs remain valuable for characterizing osseous lesions and enabling accurate differential diagnosis of benign and malignant tumors (Figure 1). Multiple lytic lesions in an adult older than 40 years almost always suggest metastases or multiple myeloma.13 Bone sarcomas are rare, and the most common cause of a solitary destructive lesion in an adult is metastasis.

Despite their utility for evaluating osseous lesions, radiographs have limited to no value in the evaluation of soft-tissue sarcomas but can demonstrate matrix mineralization and erosion or destruction of adjacent bone.

Angiography. In the past, angiography was frequently used to assess the vascularity of sarcomas preoperatively. Diagnostic angiography has been replaced by conventional MRI and magnetic resonance angiography, but some vascular sarcomas may require presurgical embolization to prevent excessive bleeding during surgery.

Radionuclide bone scans have long been a reliable tool for detecting multifocal or disseminated osseous lesions and remain the mainstay for evaluation of osseous metastases. They also are helpful in identifying skip lesions of osteosarcoma (ie, smaller discrete foci of osteosarcoma occurring in the same bone or on the opposing side of a joint).14 Advantages of this modality include whole-body scanning and low radiation at relatively low cost. Radionuclide bone scans demonstrate areas of bony repair and thus could be negative in purely lytic/destructive processes such as renal cell carcinoma metastases and multiple myeloma.

Chest radiographs are typically obtained in the initial stages of patient evaluation and are helpful in demonstrating large nodules or masses resulting from metastatic disease. In a patient with known sarcoma, a negative or equivocal chest radiograph should be followed by chest CT to definitively assess for metastasis.

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