Knee Replacement Allergies – Nothing to Sneeze At?
Each year, hundreds of thousands of knee replacements are performed. In knee replacement, the worn ends of the bones that make up the knee joint are replaced with metal and plastic implants. In most cases, results are excellent, however in rare cases, an immune response may arise and can become problematic.
That is, the patient may suffer from an allergy or hypersensitivity to the metallic components of the implant. Symptoms may include warmth or swelling at the knee, a skin rash and even loosening of the implant.
This complication is so rare, that its very existence has been debated. But at the 2009 annual meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, a paper was presented documenting what appear to be allergic reactions to knee replacements.
Dr. Alvin Ong et. al. recorded 19 cases from 2005-2008 where total knee replacement failures were attributed to metal sensitivity. The authors ruled out all other possible causes of implant failure and then performed a special test, the lymphocyte transformation test (LTT) which looks at a patients sensitivity to certain metals. Seventeen of the nineteen patients with failed knee replacements were tested. Ten patients recorded high sensitivity while the remaining seven indicated mild sensitivity.
Following the sensitivity testing, 16 of the patients had a second procedure where the traditional metal knee replacement was removed and replaced with a non-metallic implant (the ceramic Oxinium implant from manufacturer Smith and Nephew). Following this knee replacement, the authors reported good results and elimination of the inflammation that was present with the traditional metal implant.
So although an allergic reaction to metal knee replacement implants may be rare, it is not unheard of. Unfortunately, diagnostic tests like LTT are relatively expensive and persons testing positive are not always symptomatic.1 In their article, Dr. Ong et. al. suggest that surgeons be mindful of the possibility of metal hypersensitivity especially when failures of implants are noted and cannot be attributed to other factors.
1 Rabin SI, Graf CN, Hopkinson, WJ, Hallab NJ “Immune Response to Implants.” emedicine.medscape.com. 08 Mar. 2009. <http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/1230696-overview>
2 Jafari SM, Della Valle CJ, Orozco F, Ong AC. “Metal Hypersensitivity Following Total Knee Arthroplasty: A Real Phenomenon?” 2009 AAOS Annual Meeting, Poster No. P134