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Can cobalt levels estimate in-vivo wear of metal-on-metal bearings used in hip arthroplasty?

M Khan1,2*, J H Kuiper1,2, and J B Richardson1,2 1Institute of Orthopaedics, Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedics Hospital, Oswestry, UK 2Centre for Science and Technology in Medicine, Keele University Hospital, Keele, UK.

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High levels of cobalt and chromium ions are detected in the blood and urine of patients with metal-on-metal (MoM) hip replacement. These elements are released as a result of wear at the bearing surfaces. Wear rates depend on a multitude of factors, which include the bearing geometry, carbon content, manufacturing processes, lubrication, speed and direction of sliding of the surfaces, pattern of loading, and orientation of the components. In-vivo wear of MoM bearings cannot be reliably measured on X-rays because no distinction can be made between the bearing surfaces. Hip simulator studies have shown that wear rates are higher during the initial bedding-in phase and subsequently drop to very low levels. Accordingly, metal ion levels would be expected to decrease with the use of the bearing, measured as implantation time following surgery. However, several clinical studies have found that metal ion levels either gradually rise or fluctuate instead of decreasing to lower levels. Moreover, hip simulator studies predict that large-diameter bearings have lower wear rates than small diameter bearings. In clinical studies, however, metal levels in patients with large-diameter bearings are unexpectedly higher than those in patients with small-diameter bearings.

As a consequence, high cobalt ion levels in patients do not necessarily imply that their MoMbearings produce much wear debris at the time that their levels were measured; it may simply be due to accumulation of wear debris from the preceding time. Exercise-related cobalt rise may overcome this limitation and give a better assessment of the current wear status of a MoM bearing surface than a measure of cobalt levels only.