The course of secondary fracture healing typically consists of four major phases including inflammation, soft and hard callus formation, and bone remodeling. Callus formation is promoted by mechanical stimulation, yet little is known about the healing tissue response to strain stimuli over shorter timeframes on hourly and daily basis. The aim of this study was to explore the hourly, daily and weekly variations in bone healing progression and to analyze the short-term response of the repair tissue to well-controlled mechanical stimulation.
A system for continuous monitoring of fracture healing was designed for implantation in sheep tibia. The experimental model was adapted from Tufekci et al. 2018 and consisted of 3 mm transverse osteotomy and 30 mm bone defect resulting in an intermediate mobile bone fragment in the tibial shaft. Whereas the distal and proximal parts of the tibia were fixed with external fixator, the mobile fragment was connected to the proximal part via a second, active fixator. A linear actuator embedded in the active fixator moved the mobile fragment axially, thus stimulating mechanically the tissue in the osteotomy gap via well-controlled displacement being independent from the sheep's functional weightbearing. A load sensor was integrated in the active fixation to measure the force acting in the osteotomy gap. During each stimulation cycle the displacement and force magnitudes were recorded to determine in vivo fracture stiffness. Following approval of the local ethics committee, experiments were conducted on four skeletally mature sheep. Starting from the first day after surgery, the daily stimulation protocols consisted of 1000 loading events equally distributed over 12 hours from 9:00 to 21:00 resulting in a single loading event every 44 seconds. No stimulation was performed overnight.
One animal had to be excluded due to inconsistencies in the load sensor data. The onset of tissue stiffening was detected around the eleventh day post-op. However, on a daily basis, the stiffness was not steadily increasing, but instead, an abrupt drop was observed in the beginning of the daily stimulations. Following this initial drop, the stiffness increased until the last stimulation cycle of the day.
The continuous measurements enabled resolving the tissue response to strain stimuli over hours and days. The presented data contributes to the understanding of the influence of patient activity on daily variations in tissue stiffness and can serve to optimize rehabilitation protocols post fractures.