Post-traumatic osteoarthritis (PTOA) is responsible for the majority of cases of ankle arthritis. While acute and end-stage intra-articular inflammation has previously been described, the state of the joint between fracture healing and end-stage PTOA remains undefined. This study characterized synovial fluid (SF) composition of ankles after bone healing of an intra-articular fracture to identify factors that may contribute to the development of PTOA.

Of an original 21 patients whose SF was characterized acutely following intra-articular ankle fractures, 7 returned for planned hardware (syndesmotic screw) removal after bone healing (approximately 6 months) and consented to a second bilateral SF collection. SF concentrations of 15 cytokines and matrix metalloproteinases (MMPs) and 2 markers each of cartilage catabolism (CTXII and glycosaminoglycan) and hemarthrosis (biliverdin and bilirubin) were compared for previously fractured and contralateral, uninjured ankles from the same patient. Analysis was also performed to determine the effect of the number of fracture lines and involvement of soft tissue on SF composition.

Interleukin (IL)-6, IL-8, MMP-1, MMP-2, and MMP-3 were significantly elevated in the SF from healed ankles compared to matched contralateral uninjured ankles at approximately 6 months after fracture. There were no differences in markers of cartilage catabolism or hemarthrosis. Only IL-1α was affected by the number of fracture lines while differences were not detected for other analytes or with respect to the involvment of soft tissue.

Sustained intra-articular inflammation, even after complete bone healing, was suggested by elevations of pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-6 and IL-8). In addition, elevated concentrations of MMPs were also noted and were consistent with a persistent inflammatory environment. This study suggests new evidence of persistent intra-articular inflammation after intra-articular ankle fracture healing and suggests potential mediators for PTOA development.

This work may be relevant to the clinical diagnosis and treatment of post-traumatic osteoarthritis.