One in five children may have benign bone tumors and not know about it

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — Children are constantly growing however, a new study finds that process doesn’t always go as planned. Researchers have discovered that up to one in five children could be harboring benign bone tumors in their bodies.

Although the figure may sound frightening, study authors emphasis that these growths are harmless, common, and may even resolve themselves later on. Until now, doctors have been unable to answer their patents’ questions about how these tumors form or how they might progress. The new study, examining children’s radiographs from 1926 to 1942, is giving doctors the information they need to put patients at ease.

These particular radiographs come from a time before scientists fully realized the damaging effects of radiation. Doctors could not get such a unique look at the skeleton today due to ethical concerns.

“These findings provide unique evidence to answer many commonly encountered questions when counseling patients and their families on benign bone tumors,” Dr. Christopher Collier from the Indiana University School of Medicine says in a media release. “Understandably, these tumors cause a lot of anxiety for patients and families as they await confirmation that the tumor is benign.”

“They need reassurance and often ask how common these tumors are, when did they first appear, and whether they will resolve over time? We don’t have much evidence to date to address these questions,” Dr. Collier continues.

How do doctors even know to look for bone tumors?

Doctors usually discover benign childhood tumors during x-ray exams they’re conducting for other reasons. Although some can be “active” or “aggressive,” these tumors are typically non-threatening and discovered only when they cause discomfort or when bones break.

When they are discovered, the child is usually referred to a pediatric orthopedic surgeon or orthopedic oncologist. The condition is so common that for some specialists, children with benign tumors account for more than half of their new patients.

This report, appearing in The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, is one of the first studies of benign bone tumors in children. It’s also the only one to provide follow-ups and children’s ages from when the participants were first scanned.

Researchers say these radiographs were first made for the Brush Inquiry. That study involved a group of healthy children in Cleveland who underwent annual x-ray scans. Close to a century later, the Brush Inquiry x-rays are providing doctors with a unique opportunity to identify benign bone tumors and their outcomes over several years of follow-up.

When do benign bone tumors form?

Dr. Collier and researches in Ohio analyzed 25,555 digitized radiographs from 262 children. The Brush Inquiry followed these children from early childhood into their teen years. More than half of the tumors were a type called non-ossifying fibromas. These are masses of connective tissue that have not hardened into bone. Fibromas tend to appear around age five and again around the time when a child’s skeleton begins to mature.

Of 19 non-ossifying fibromas detected in the study, seven disappeared over time. Researchers note that others may have resolved themselves in the years after the children stopped undergoing annual x-rays. Less-common benign bone tumors spotted in the radiographs include enostoses. Sometimes called “bone islands,” osteochondromas, or enchondromas, they are areas of abnormal but harmless cartilage growth.

“Despite the inherent limitations of our historical study, it may provide the best available evidence regarding the natural history of asymptomatic benign childhood bone tumors,” Dr. Collier concludes.

SWNS writer William Janes contributed to this report.