Background: ACL injuries are becoming increasingly common in children and adolescents, but little is known regarding age-specific ACL function in these patients. To improve our understanding of changes in musculoskeletal tissues during growth and given the limited availability of pediatric human cadaveric specimens, tissue structure and function can be assessed in large animal models, such as the pig.
Questions/purposes: Using cadaveric porcine specimens ranging throughout skeletal growth, we aimed to assess age-dependent changes in (1) joint kinematics under applied AP loads and varus-valgus moments, (2) biomechanical function of the ACL under the same loads, (3) the relative biomechanical function of the anteromedial and posterolateral bundles of the ACL; and (4) size and orientation of the anteromedial and posterolateral bundles.
Methods: Stifle joints (analogous to the human knee) were collected from female Yorkshire crossbreed pigs at five ages ranging from early youth to late adolescence (1.5, 3, 4.5, 6, and 18 months; n = 6 pigs per age group, 30 total), and MRIs were performed. A robotic testing system was used to determine joint kinematics (AP tibial translation and varus-valgus rotation) and in situ forces in the ACL and its bundles in response to applied anterior tibial loads and varus-valgus moments. To see if morphological changes to the ACL compared with biomechanical changes, ACL and bundle cross-sectional area, length, and orientation were calculated from MR images.
Results: Joint kinematics decreased with increasing age. Normalized AP tibial translation decreased by 44% from 1.5 months (0.34 ± 0.08) to 18 months (0.19 ± 0.02) at 60° of flexion (p < 0.001) and varus-valgus rotation decreased from 25° ± 2° at 1.5 months to 6° ± 2° at 18 months (p < 0.001). The ACL provided the majority of the resistance to anterior tibial loading at all age groups (75% to 111% of the applied anterior force; p = 0.630 between ages). Anteromedial and posterolateral bundle function in response to anterior loading and varus torque were similar in pigs of young ages. During adolescence (4.5 to 18 months), the in situ force carried by the anteromedial bundle increased relative to that carried by the posterolateral bundle, shifting from 59% ± 22% at 4.5 months to 92% ± 12% at 18 months (data for 60° of flexion, p < 0.001 between 4.5 and 18 months). The cross-sectional area of the anteromedial bundle increased by 30 mm throughout growth from 1.5 months (5 ± 2 mm) through 18 months (35 ± 8 mm; p < 0.001 between 1.5 and 18 months), while the cross-sectional area of the posterolateral bundle increased by 12 mm from 1.5 months (7 ± 2 mm) to 4.5 months (19 ± 5 mm; p = 0.004 between 1.5 and 4.5 months), with no further growth (17 ± 7 mm at 18 months; p = 0.999 between 4.5 and 18 months). However, changes in length and orientation were similar between the bundles.
Conclusion: We showed that the stifle joint (knee equivalent) in the pig has greater translational and rotational laxity in early youth (1.5 to 3 months) compared with adolescence (4.5 to 18 months), that the ACL functions as a primary stabilizer throughout growth, and that the relative biomechanical function and size of the anteromedial and posterolateral bundles change differently with growth.
Clinical relevance: Given the large effects observed here, the age- and bundle-specific function, size, and orientation of the ACL may need to be considered regarding surgical timing, graft selection, and graft placement. In addition, the findings of this study will be used to motivate pre-clinical studies on the impact of partial and complete ACL injuries during skeletal growth.