Step Monitors Yield New Insight into Ankle Surgery Outcomes

Patients considering surgery for end-stage ankle arthritis often ask which  treatment—arthroplasty or arthrodesis—will help the most. Findings from various studies attempting to answer that complex question have been equivocal. In the July 3, 2019 issue of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Shofer et al. inject some objective data gleaned from step counters worn by 234 patients into this predominantly subjective question.

All patients were treated with either arthroplasty (n = 145) or arthrodesis (n = 89). Their step activity was measured with a StepWatch 3 Activity Monitor preoperatively and at 6, 12, 24, and 36 months postoperatively. In both groups combined, step counts during “high activity” (>40 steps per minute) increased by 46% over 36 months. At 6 months, the mean high-activity step improvement was 194 steps in the arthroplasty group, compared with a mean decline of 44 steps for the arthrodesis group. However, by 36 months after surgery, the between-group differences in high-activity steps had disappeared.

The authors also analyzed associations between the objective step results and 3 patient-reported outcomes (the Musculoskeletal Function Assessment and the SF-36 physical function and pain scores). Unlike the patient-reported scores, which improved dramatically in the first 6 months and then plateaued, improvements in step activity increased gradually throughout the 3-year follow-up.

The authors emphasized that during the first 12 postoperative months, the arthrodesis patients had little or no improvement in step activity, but at 3 years there were no significant differences between arthrodesis and arthroplasty patients. These findings suggest that, in this clinical scenario, an individual patient’s expectations with the pace of improvement may be a suitable topic during shared decision making conversations.

This study does not entirely reconcile previously equivocal findings regarding arthroplasty-versus-arthrodesis, but it does emphasize the substantial and sustained activity benefits that patients in both groups receive. Shofer et al. conclude that objective measurements from wearable technology “may complement patient-reported outcomes” in future longitudinal outcome studies of many orthopaedic treatments.

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