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Osteosarcoma is a very rare type of cancerous bone tumor that usually develops in teenagers. It often occurs when a teen is growing rapidly.

Causes of Osteosarcoma

Osteosarcoma is the most common bone cancer in children. Average age at diagnosis is 15. Boys and girls are just as likely to develop this tumor until the late teens, when it occurs more often in boys. Osteosarcoma is also common in people over age 60.

The cause is not known. In some cases, osteosarcoma runs in families. At least one gene has been linked to an increased risk. This gene is also associated with familial retinoblastoma. This is a cancer of the eye that occurs in children.

Osteosarcoma tends to occur in the bones of the:

  • Shin (near the knee)
  • Thigh (near the knee)
  • Upper arm (near the shoulder)

Osteosarcoma occurs most commonly in large bones in the area of bone with the fastest growth rate. However, it can occur in any bone.

Osteosarcoma Symptoms

The first symptom is usually bone pain near a joint. This symptom may be overlooked because of other more common causes of joint pain.

Other symptoms may include any of the following:

  • Bone fracture (may occur after a routine movement)
  • Limitation of motion
  • Limping (if the tumor is in the leg)
  • Pain when lifting (if the tumor is in the arm)
  • Tenderness, swelling, or redness at the site of the tumor

Tests and Exams

Tests that may be done include:

  • Biopsy (at time of surgery for diagnosis)
  • Blood tests
  • Bone scan to see if the cancer has spread to other bones
  • CT scan of the chest to see if the cancer has spread to the lungs
  • MRI scan
  • PET scan
  • X-ray

Treatment of Osteosarcoma

Treatment usually starts after a biopsy of the tumor is done.

Before surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy is usually given. This can shrink the tumor and make surgery easier. It may also kill any cancer cells that have spread to other parts of the body.

Surgery is used after chemotherapy to remove any remaining tumor. In most cases, surgery can remove the tumor while saving the affected limb. This is called limb-sparing surgery. In rare cases, more involved surgery (amputation) is necessary.

Support Groups

You can ease the stress of illness by joining a cancer support group. Sharing with others who have common experiences and problems can help you and your family not feel alone.

Prognosis (Outlook)

If the tumor has not spread to the lungs (pulmonary metastasis), long-term survival rates are better. If the cancer has spread to other parts of the body, the outlook is worse. However, there is still a chance of cure with effective treatment.

Potential Complications

Complications may include:

  • Limb removal
  • Spread of cancer to the lungs
  • Side effects of chemotherapy

When to Contact a Health Professional

Call your health care provider if you or your child has persistent bone pain, tenderness, or swelling.


Anderson ME, Randall RL, Springfield DS, Gebhardt MC. Sarcomas of bone. In: Niederhuber JE, Armitage JO, Doroshow JH, Kastan MB, Tepper JE, eds. Abeloff's Clinical Oncology. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 92.

National Cancer Institute. PDQ Osteosarcoma and malignant fibrous histiocytoma or bone treatment. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Date last modified December 14, 2014. Available at: Accessed February 27, 2015.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network. NCCN Clinical Practice Guidelines in Oncology: Bone Cancer. Version 1.2015. Available at: Accessed February 27, 2015.

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Review Date: 11/26/2014
Reviewed By: Yi-Bin Chen, MD, Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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