Subtalar Joint Compensation after Ankle Fusion
Ankle fusion continues to be a predictable treatment for degenerative tibiotalar arthritis. It improves both pain and function from primary osteoarthritis and degeneration related to chronic instability or trauma. JBJS has published several recent studies demonstrating that the outcomes of fusion compare favorably with those of total ankle replacement, particularly in higher-demand patients. (See, for example, Effectiveness and Safety of Ankle Arthrodesis Versus Arthroplasty and Outcomes of Total Ankle Replacement, Arthroscopic Ankle Arthrodesis, and Open Ankle Arthrodesis for Isolated Non-Deformed End-Stage Ankle Arthritis.)
Many clinicians have wondered why outcomes after ankle arthrodesis are typically so much better than those after arthrodesis of other mobile joints. In the April 1, 2020 issue of The Journal, Lenz et al. provide an answer. Using dual fluoroscopy integrated with 3-D CT, the authors compared the subtalar motion of the surgically fused ankle in 10 patients with the motion of the untreated, asymptomatic side. The findings strongly suggest that compensatory increased plantar flexion of the subtalar joint allows improved function following successful arthrodesis. The authors found that this increased motion occurred during both normal plantigrade ambulation and bilateral heel raises.
Clinicians can use this important information to explain to patients who are deciding between ankle arthrodesis and arthroplasty how fusion can not only improve pain, but can also result in good functional range of motion. On the other hand, the authors surmise that the compensatory increase in subtalar joint plantar flexion may explain the reported increased risk of future subtalar osteoarthritis in surgically fused ankles. However, to answer that question, we’ll need larger, longitudinal clinical studies that evaluate the relationship between the compensatory post-fusion subtalar kinematics discovered by Lenz et al. and radiographic findings and patient-reported pain and function.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD