The Pathophysiologic Role of Fat in Dysbaric Osteonecrosis

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Dysbaric osteonecrosis (DON) can occur in humans and sheep after a single hyperbaric air exposure with inadequate decompression. The authors hypothesize that DON does not result from primary embolic or compressive effects of nitrogen bubbles on the osseous vasculature, but by secondary injury to the marrow adipose tissue by rapidly expanding nitrogen gas that triggers local, and possibly systemic, intravascular coagulation. A 28-year-old scallop diver remained at a depth of 92 feet in sea water for 4.5 hours on surface-supplied compressed air. Decompression sickness occurred after a no-stop ascent to the surface, and he died 70 minutes later. Autopsy showed multiple gas bubbles, not only within the great vessels, but in the fatty marrow of his femoral and humeral heads. Lipid and platelet aggregates were found on the surface of marrow bubbles. Fibrin-platelet thrombi were detected within dilated venous sinusoids adjacent to bubbles, and in veins, capillaries, and arterioles. Since pulmonary, renal, and intraosseous (subchondral) fat embolism and fibrin thromboses were observed, it is suggested that injured marrow adipocytes can release liquid fat, thromboplastin, and other vasoactive substances, which conceivably can also play a systemic procoagulant role in triggering disseminated intravascular coagulation and additional DON.

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