Wear of the polyethylene tibial bearing is a leading cause of failure of knee replacements done prior to the current decade. The objective of this study was to determine how patient-related factors, implant-related factors, and limb or tibial component alignment influenced the amount of thickness loss in polyethylene tibial bearings that were retrieved at the time of revision surgery or after the death of the patient.

We retrieved polyethylene tibial bearings from eighty-one unicondylar and eighty-nine total knee replacements that had been performed because of osteoarthritis with varus deformity from 1984 to 1998. All of the polyethylene bearings had been sterilized with gamma radiation in air. Polyethylene loss was quantified as the change in the minimum bearing thickness per years in vivo (the mean time in vivo [and standard deviation] was 8 +/- 4 years). Multiple linear regression was used to assess whether polyethylene loss was associated with age, weight, gender, varus angle of the tibial component, postoperative hip-knee-ankle angle, initial thickness of the polyethylene, shelf age of the polyethylene, and either the type of polyethylene (for total knee replacements, which were of one posterior cruciate ligament-retaining design) or the manufacturer (for unicondylar knee replacements), and to determine the magnitude by which polyethylene loss would change if any of the significant risk factors were changed.

The mean loss (and standard deviation) of polyethylene thickness in the medial compartment of total knee replacements (0.33 +/- 0.28 mm/yr) and that in medial unicompartmental knee replacements (0.49 +/- 0.40 mm/yr) were significantly (p < 0.05) associated with the same three variables: patient age, postoperative hip-knee-ankle angle, and shelf age of the polyethylene. A total knee bearing with a one-year increase in shelf age, a unicondylar knee bearing with a six-month increase in shelf age, a patient who was ten years younger at the time of operation, or a limb that was aligned in 5 degrees more varus (less valgus) had similar effects on the loss of polyethylene thickness in the medial compartment; the coefficients of the linear regression equations indicated that any one of these changes would increase polyethylene loss by 0.11 to 0.14 mm/yr.

The wear-related loss of thickness in gamma-irradiated-in-air polyethylene bearings from unicondylar and total knee replacements implanted in osteoarthritic knees with varus deformity is influenced mainly by the shelf age of the polyethylene, the age of the patient, and the postoperative angulation of the knee in the coronal plane.

Although polyethylene bearings have not been sterilized with gamma radiation in air since the end of the last decade, many arthroplasty patients have polyethylene bearings that were sterilized with use of this method. An understanding of the findings of this study may be of value as these patients return for follow-up care. Whether the study findings have relevance to bearings sterilized with other methods is unclear and will remain so for many years.

Prognostic Level II.

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