A subchondral bone cyst is a fluid-filled sac that forms within the bone, usually near a joint surface. These cysts are commonly associated with osteoarthritis and other joint-related conditions.

Woman dealing with a subchondral bone cyst.
A subchondral bone cyst can be very painful. Physical therapy can be part of the solution.

How Do You Get a Subchondral Bone Cyst?

Subchondral bone cysts typically develop in the subchondral bone, which is the layer of bone just beneath the cartilage of a joint. The exact cause of these cysts is unclear, but they are often associated with conditions that affect the joints, such as osteoarthritis. Joint degeneration and bone structure changes can contribute to the development of these cysts.


A subchondral bone cyst may not cause symptoms initially. However, as they grow, they can lead to joint pain, stiffness, and reduced range of motion. In some cases, the cysts may contribute to joint instability.

Anyone who suspects a bone cyst should look for the following:

  1. Joint Pain: Persistent pain in the affected joint that can worsen with movement or when the patient puts weight on a joint.
  2. Swelling: Swelling around the joint due to inflammation and fluid accumulation.
  3. Stiffness: Difficulty moving the joint, especially after periods of inactivity. Stiffness can contribute to a decreased range of motion.
  4. Reduced Range of Motion: A limitation in the joint’s normal movement, making it challenging to perform certain activities.
  5. Weakness: The cyst can weaken the bone, leading to a feeling of instability or weakness in the joint.

How are Cysts Diagnosed?

Physicians generally diagnose a bone cyst by imaging the area with either X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or computed tomography (CT) scans. These are often used to diagnose subchondral bone cysts or any type of bone malformation. A trained physician must then interpret the scan to ensure the problem is actually a cyst and not another type of bone issue.

How do You Treat a Bone Cyst?

Treatment depends on the size of the cyst, the symptoms it causes, and the underlying joint condition. Conservative treatments may include rest, physical therapy, and pain management. In some cases, more invasive interventions, such as joint injections or surgical procedures, may be considered.

Since subchondral bone cysts are often associated with joint conditions like osteoarthritis. This is why managing the underlying joint problem is crucial. If you suspect a bone cyst, ignoring the problem can cause a much bigger problem down the road.

Treating a bone cyst may involve lifestyle modifications, medications, and other interventions to address joint degeneration.

It’s important for individuals experiencing joint pain or related symptoms to consult with a healthcare professional for a proper diagnosis and appropriate management plan. Orthopedic specialists, rheumatologists, or other healthcare providers with expertise in musculoskeletal conditions can help guide the evaluation and treatment of subchondral bone cysts.

Woman using exercise to improve joint health.

Physical Therapy Can Help

Physical therapy is an important part of any treatment plan for subchondral bone cysts. Here’s how physical therapy can help:

  1. Pain Management: Physical therapists can design exercises and activities that help alleviate pain associated with bone cysts. This may include gentle movements and techniques to reduce inflammation, which reduces pain.
  2. Range of Motion Exercises: Targeted exercises can improve and maintain joint flexibility and range of motion. This helps prevent the joint from becoming stiff and can improve overall health. Basically, the less range of motion a patient has, the greater the chance they will experience pain from a bone cyst.
  3. Strengthening Exercises: Strengthening the muscles around the affected joint provides additional support. This can help compensate for any weakness caused by the cyst and contribute to joint stability.
  4. Weight Management: Maintaining a healthy weight is crucial for joint health. Physical therapists can guide individuals on exercises that support weight management and reduce stress on the affected joint.
  5. Educational Support: Physical therapists can educate individuals about proper body mechanics and joint protection strategies. This knowledge can help prevent further damage to the joint and improve overall joint health.

Physical therapy is often part of a comprehensive treatment plan that may also include medication, lifestyle modifications, and even surgical intervention. How physical therapy is used is often a team decision that includes your doctor, your physical therapist, and you.

For more information about how physical therapy can be part of your overall plan for health, contact STARS Physical Therapy today.

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