Osteonecrosis of the jaw historical perspective
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History in Dental Medicine
ONJ is not a new disease, around 1850 various forms of "chemical osteomyelitis" resulting from environmental pollutants, such as lead and the white phosphorus used in early (non-safety) matches (Phossy jaw), as well as from popular medications containing mercury, arsenic or bismuth, were reported in the literature. This disease apparently did not often occur in individuals with good gingival health, and usually targeted the mandible first.It was associated with localized or generalized deep ache or pain, often of multiple jawbone sites. The teeth often appeared sound and suppuration was not present. Even so, the dentist often began extracting one tooth after another in the region of pain, often with temporary relief but usually to no real effect.
Today a growing body of scientific evidence indicate that this disease process, in the cancellous bone and bone marrow, is caused by bone infarcts mediated by a range of local and systemic factors. Bone infarcts as well as damage to the deeper portion of the cancellous bone is an insidious process. It is certainly not visible clinically and routine imaging techniques such as radiographs are not effective for that sort of damage. "An important and often incompletely understood principle of radiography is the amount of bone destruction that goes undetected by routine x-rays procedures; this has been demonstrated by numerous investigators. Destruction confined to the cancellous portion of the bone cannot be detected radiographically, ad radiolucencies appear only when there is internal or external erosion or destruction of the bone cortex." In fact no radiographic findings are specific for bone infarction / osteonecrosis. A variety of pathologies may mimic bone infarction, including stress fractures, infections, inflammations, and metabolic and neoplastic processes. The limitations apply to all imaging modalities, including plain radiography, radionuclide studies, CT scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Through-transmission alveolar ultrasound, based on quantitative ultrasound (QUS) in combination with panoramic dental radiography (orthopantomography) is helpful in assessing changes in jawbone density. When practitioners have an up to date understanding of the disease process and a good anamnesis is combined with detailed clinical findings and course of events, the diagnosis, with the help of various imaging modality, can be achieved earlier, in most patients.
In the modern dental profession, it is only recently when severe cases associated with bisphosphonates came to light, that the issue of ONJ has been brought to the attention of a majority of dentists. At present, the focus is mostly on bisphosphonates associated cases, and is sometimes referred to colloquially as "phossy jaw", a similar, earlier occupational disease. However, the pharmaceutical manufacturers of bisphosphonates drugs such as Merck and Novartis have stated that ONJ in patients on this class of drug, can be related to a pre-existing condition, coagulopathy, anemia, infection, use of corticosteroids, alcoholism and other conditions already known to be associated with ONJ in absence of bisphosphonate therapy. The implication is that bisphosphonates may not be the initiating cause of ONJ and that other pre-existing or concurrent systemic and/or local dental factors are involved.
Since ONJ has been diagnosed in many patients who did not take bisphosphonates, it is thus logical to assume that bisphosphonates are not the only factor in ONJ While the oversuppression of bone turnover seems to play a major role in aggravating the disease process, other factors can and do initiate the pathophysiological mechanisms responsible for ONJ. In non-bisphosphonate cases of ONj, it is mainly the cancellous portion of the bone and it’s marrow content that are involved in the disease process. The first stage is an oedema of the bone marrow initiated by a bone infarct, which is itself modulated by numerous etiological factors, leading to myelofibrosis as a result of hypoxia and gradual loss of mineral bone density characteristic of ischemic osteoporosis. Further deterioration can be triggered by additional bone infarcts leading to anoxia and a localized areas of osteonecrosis within the osteoporotic cancellous bone. Secondary events such as dental infection, injection of local anesthetics with vasoconstrictors, such as epinephrine, and trauma can add further complications to the disease process and chronic non-pus forming bone infection osteomyelitis can also be associated with ONJ. 
However, in patients on bisphosphonates, the cortical bone is also frequently involved as well. Spontaneous exposure of necrotic bone tissue through the oral soft tissues or following non-healing bone exposure after routine dental surgery, characteristics of this form of ONJ may be the result of late diagnosis of a disease process that has been masked by the oversuppression of osteoclastic activity, allowing pre-existing etiological factors to further aggravate bone damage.
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