Full-Thickness Cartilage Defects More Predictive of Future TKA than Joint-Space Narrowing

Many older patients present to orthopaedic surgeons with clinical knee pain suggestive of osteoarthritis (OA) but with little or no radiographic evidence of disease. And a substantial proportion of those patients do not respond adequately to the recommended, first-line nonsurgical treatment approaches to knee OA. A prognostic study by Everhart et al. in the January 2, 2019 issue of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery helps explain why that might be.

The authors evaluated baseline knee radiographs and MRIs from >1,300 older adults (mean age of 61 years) who were enrolled in the Osteoarthritis Initiative, a multicenter observational cohort study with a median of 9 years of follow-up data. They sought to determine independent risk factors for progression to total knee arthroplasty (TKA) among this cohort, all of whom showed Kellgren-Lawrence grade 0 to 3 OA on knee radiographs. MRIs taken at baseline revealed that 38% of those patients had a full-thickness knee-cartilage defect. After the authors adjusted for various confounders (including age, weight, and symptom severity), they found that regardless of radiographic grade, the presence of a full-thickness cartilage defect was a strong independent risk factor for subsequent TKA. Moreover, patients with a defect ≥2 cm2 had twice the risk of arthroplasty compared with patients with defects <2 cm2.

According to the authors, the findings highlight the “greater importance of full-thickness cartilage loss over radiographic OA grade as a determinant of OA severity, specifically regarding the risk of future knee arthroplasty in older adults.” In his commentary on this study, Drew A. Lansdown, MD emphasizes that Everhart et al. “do not advocate for the routine use of MRI in the diagnosis of knee osteoarthritis,” but he says the findings “do suggest that early MRI may have a diagnostic role for patients who are not responding as expected to nonoperative measures.” Noting that the patients in this cohort would probably not be ideal candidates for current cartilage-restoration procedures, Dr. Lansdown encourages further research focused on identifying “patient-specific factors that can match patients with the treatment…that will provide the greatest likelihood of symptom relief and functional improvement.”

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