Effects of radial head excision and distal radial shortening on load-sharing in cadaver forearms

M F Shepard, K L Markolf, A M Dunbar
Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery. American Volume 2001, 83-A (1): 92-100

BACKGROUND: The present study was performed to measure changes in radioulnar load-sharing in the cadaveric forearm following two orthopaedic surgical procedures that often have varying results: radial head excision and distal radial shortening. A better understanding of the biomechanical consequences of those procedures could aid surgeons in obtaining a more satisfactory clinical outcome.

METHODS: Miniature load-cells were inserted into the proximal part of the radius and the distal part of the ulna in twenty fresh-frozen cadaveric forearms. Load-cell forces, radial head displacement relative to the capitellum, and local tension within the central band of the interosseous membrane were measured simultaneously as the wrist was loaded to 133.5 N in neutral pronation-supination and neutral radioulnar deviation. Testing was repeated after incremental distal radial shortening and after removal of the radial head.

RESULTS: With the elbow flexed to 90 degrees and in valgus alignment (the radial head in contact with the capitellum), the mean force in the distal part of the ulna was 7.1% of the applied wrist force and the mean force in the interosseous membrane was 4.0%. With the elbow in varus alignment (a mean initial gap of 1.97 mm between the radial head and the capitellum), the respective mean values were 27.9% and 51.2%. After excision of the radial head, the mean force in the distal part of the ulna increased to 42.4% of the applied wrist force and the mean force in the interosseous membrane increased to 58.8%, in both varus and valgus elbow alignment. The mean distal ulnar force increased with progressive distal radial shortening in both varus and valgus elbow alignment; after 6 mm of radial shortening, the distal ulnar force averaged 92.4% (in varus alignment) and 60.9% (in valgus alignment). Equal distal load-sharing between the radius and ulna occurred after approximately 5 mm of radial shortening with the elbow in valgus alignment and after approximately 2 mm of radial shortening with the elbow in varus alignment. In valgus alignment, the force in the interosseous membrane was negligible after all degrees of radial shortening; in varus alignment, the mean force in the interosseous membrane decreased from 51.2% (0 mm of distal radial shortening) to 0% (6 mm of distal radial shortening) because of progressive slackening of the interosseous membrane.

CONCLUSIONS: Radial head excision shifted the applied wrist force that normally would be transmitted to the elbow, through radial head-capitellar contact, to the interosseous membrane. The resulting proximal radial displacement created an ulnar-positive wrist and increased distal ulnar loading. Radial shortening and ulnar lengthening procedures have been designed to shift the applied wrist force from the distal part of the radius to the distal part of the ulna; it is commonly assumed that these procedures have equivalent biomechanical effects. We found that radial shortening resulted in slackening of the interosseous membrane, thereby negating its ability to transmit load through the forearm. Slackening of the interosseous membrane would not be expected with distal ulnar lengthening procedures.

CLINICAL RELEVANCE: When the radial head has been fractured or excised, the mechanical status of the interosseous membrane is critical to the load-sharing process. If the interosseous membrane remains intact, distal ulnar loads will be limited to less than half of the applied wrist force; if the interosseous membrane has been damaged, nearly the entire applied wrist force will be shifted to the ulna. The amount of radial shortening or ulnar lengthening performed at the time of surgery during joint-leveling procedures has been largely empirical. We found that distal ulnar load increased by approximately 10% for each millimeter of radial shortening.

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