Quantitative analysis of the reversibility of knee flexion contractures with time: an experimental study using the rat model

BMC Musculoskelet Disord. 2014 Oct 7:15:338. doi: 10.1186/1471-2474-15-338.


Background: Knee flexion contractures prevent the full extension of the knee joint and cause disability. The etiology is not well defined. Extended periods of immobilization of joints lead to contractures difficult to completely reverse by rehabilitation treatments. Recovery of the complete range of motion without intervention has not been studied but is of importance to optimize clinical management. This study was designed to quantify the spontaneous reversibility of knee flexion contractures over time.

Methods: Knee flexion contractures of increasing severities were induced by internally fixing one knee of 250 adult male rats for 6 increasing durations. The contractures were followed for four different durations of spontaneous recovery up to 48 weeks (24 groups, target n=10 per group). The angle of knee of extension at a standardized torque was measured. Contralateral knees constituted controls.

Results: Full reversibility characterized by knee extension similar to controls was only measured in the lowest severity group where 4 weeks of spontaneous recovery reversed early-onset contractures. Spontaneous recovery of 2, 4 and 8 weeks caused partial gain of knee extension in longer-lasting contractures (P ≤ 0.05; all 4 comparisons). Extending the durations of spontaneous recovery failed to further improve knee extension (P>0.05, all 12 comparisons). No reversal occurred in the highest severity group (32 week; P>0.05).

Conclusions: Reversibility of knee flexion contractures was dependent on their severity. Full spontaneous recovery was limited to the least severe contractures. While contractures initially improved, a plateau was reached beyond which additional durations of spontaneous recovery led to no additional gain of knee extension. These results support our view that without treatment, permanent losses in knee mobility must be anticipated in immobility-induced contractures.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Contracture / etiology
  • Contracture / physiopathology*
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Immobilization / adverse effects
  • Knee Joint / physiopathology*
  • Male
  • Range of Motion, Articular*
  • Rats, Sprague-Dawley
  • Time Factors