Long-term results after total knee replacement (TKR) with conventional and compression-molded polyethylene (PE) have been excellent. The introduction of highly cross-linked polyethylene (XLPE), which has demonstrated superior wear properties in total hip replacement (THR), has led to its recent use in TKR. However, the knee has a unique biomechanical environment characterized by large contact stresses and shear forces and differs from the highly conforming articulation (and primarily abrasive and adhesive wear) found in THR. For this reason, XLPE, with its decreased fatigue resistance and toughness compared to PE, may not be the best material to withstand these unique forces.
This review and evaluation of the literature aims to answer the following questions. What are the advantages and disadvantages of XLPE in TKR? Does its success in THR ensure a favorable outcome in TKR? Does the increased cost of XLPE justify its use in TKR?
A systematic literature review of MEDLINE, Science Direct, and Google Scholar databases was performed searching for advantages and disadvantages of XLPE in TKR. We found 18 biomechanical in vitro investigations and 3 clinical studies comparing conventional and XLPEs. We included levels I through IV published articles in peer-reviewed journals in English language.
Several in vitro studies found XLPE to have significantly better wear properties compared to conventional PE. However, the two clinical investigations that directly compared conventional PE and XLPE found no difference in clinical or radiographic outcomes. Additionally, clinical studies with long-term follow-up on TKR with conventional PE did not find wear-induced osteolysis to be a major cause of failure. Four studies did find cost to be significantly higher for XLPE compared to conventional PE.
Based on our review, we concluded that (1) the material properties of XLPE reduce adhesive and abrasive wear, but not the risk of crack propagation, deformation, pitting, and delamination found in TKR; (2) wear-induced osteolysis in TKR has not been found to be a major cause of failure at long-term follow-up; (3) mid-term follow-up studies show no difference in any recorded outcome measure between conventional PE and XLPE; and (4) XLPE is two to four times the cost of conventional PE without an improvement in clinical or radiographic outcomes. For these reasons, we currently cannot recommend the use of XLPE in TKR. Conventional compression-molded polyethylene with its outstanding long-term results should remain the material of choice in TKR.
Electronic supplementary material
The online version of this article (doi:10.1007/s11420-013-9352-x) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.