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
As the orthopaedic community continues to solve complex issues related to joint replacement, it has become apparent that deformity correction and component positioning are keys to long-term success. In terms of hip, knee, and shoulder arthroplasty, we have progressed throughout the last 50 years with improved functional outcomes and component longevity. Elbow arthroplasty development has lagged somewhat because indications for that procedure are much less common.
Meanwhile, total ankle arthroplasty (TAA) experienced a short-lived decade of enthusiasm in the late 1970s and early 1980s before it became apparent that improved component designs and surgical techniques were needed. Progress with TAA stalled until the late 1990s, but TAA has now become more predictable, and several successful designs are available with reasonable revision rates demonstrated during 10-plus years of follow-up. As with all arthroplasties, component alignment in TAA is critical, and we have therefore assumed that significant preoperative frontal plane deformity is a contraindication for this procedure.
However, in the December 18, 2019 issue of The Journal, Lee et al. challenge that assumption with midterm follow-up data on 146 TAAs that suggest patients with frontal plane deformities >20° should not necessarily be disqualified from having this procedure. In this study, prior to surgery, 107 ankles had moderate frontal plane deformity (5° to <15° of varus or valgus) and 41 ankles had severe deformity (>20° to 35° of varus or valgus). The authors found no difference between these groups in terms of functional outcomes, complications, or implant survival at a mean follow-up of 6 years. Lee et al. conclude that frontal malalignment >20° in patients with end-stage ankle osteoarthritis may not be a contraindication to proceeding with TAA. However, the authors emphasize that concomitant realignment procedures at the time of index arthroplasty (including ligament releases and corrective osteotomies) were much more common in the severe group.
These findings need confirmation from other groups and with longer-term follow-up so that data from lower-volume surgeons can be analyzed and later complications can be investigated. Still, it just may be that ankle arthroplasty is not as finicky as we have been thinking.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD
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.
Among the many variables discussed when patients and surgeons make a decision between ankle arthrodesis (fusion) and total ankle replacement (TAA) for end-stage ankle arthritis, in-hospital complication rate is an often-overlooked point of comparison, partly due to a dearth of good data.
In the September 6, 2017 edition of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Odum et al. report findings from a matched cohort study that compared these two ankle procedures in terms of minor and major perioperative complications. To make more of an apples-to-apples comparison, the authors statistically matched 1,574 patients who underwent a TAA with an equal number of those who underwent fusion.
A major in-hospital complication (such as a pulmonary embolism or mechanical hardware problem) occurred in 8.5% of fusion patients and in 5.3% of TAA patients. After adjusting for case mix, Odum et al. found that ankle arthrodesis was 1.8 times more likely than TAA to be followed by a major complication. Regarding minor in-hospital complications (such as venous thrombosis or hematoma/seroma), the authors found a 29% lower risk of complications among arthrodesis patients compared to TAA patients, although that difference was not statistically significant (p = 0.14). Regardless of surgical procedure, patient age ≤67 years and the presence of multiple comorbidities were independently associated with a higher risk of a major complication.
A possible explanation for the lower in-hospital major-complication rate in TAA patients, say the authors, is that “TAA is more likely to be performed in younger, healthier patients with better bone quality and smaller deformities.”