Ankle Replacement a Viable Option for Injuries

SIERRA VISTA – Three and a half years ago, Hereford-based handyman Michael Hill was in his backyard, working on his travel trailer, when he took a spill off of a six-foot ladder. “It wasn’t a far fall, but I fell wrong,” Hill said in January. That short fall would result in a fractured tibia, or the shin bone, just where it meets the foot and the ankle. “I just sheared a piece right off,” he said.

After a trip to the Sierra Vista Regional Health Center and two metal plates and 17 screws later, Hill thought he was on the road to recovery, but for months he was plagued by constant, sharp pain. The calcification resulting from the break was harder than the bone itself, and any movement was wearing out the cartilage in the joint. “I was in constant pain,” he said.

Determined to continue working, for a while, Hill simply grit his teeth and got back to taking jobs around the Sierra Vista area. “I do handyman work, so it’s constant walking,” he said. “Every time you got up to do something, there was a constant grinding” of the ankle. Some days, the pain was so bad, Hill would have to take the day off. On the worst days, he thought long and hard about even getting out of bed. “The pain would get to be so much, you’d quit early, or call and cancel a job because you just couldn’t get up,” he said.

About nine months after his initial surgery, Hill elected to go back under the knife in the hopes that removing the metal plates would offer him some relief, to little affect. Soon, more and more of his free time was spent on the Internet, researching injuries like his and looking for any possible solution beyond an ankle fusion, what he had been told was the only surgery local doctors would perform.

After three months of reading medical websites, visiting online forums and speaking with others who have experienced similar injuries, Hill knew that a fusion, which would dull much of the pain but result in very limited mobility, was not an option. “Ankle fusion was totally out of the question for me. At the time, I was 46. You’re too active at that age,” he said.

Eventually, his search led him to the website of Wright Medical Technology’s IN-BONE total ankle replacement, a prothesis that is implanted into the tibia in segments to form a long stem, requiring a smaller piece of the bone to be removed during surgery, and therefore retain much of its original strength.

The surgery entails the use of a combination of a specialized brace to steady the foot, allowing for more accurate x-rays and implantation of the prosthesis. “That’s how they get a proper alignment,” Hill said.

After learning as much as he could about the procedure, Hill set out to find a surgeon, and soon ended up in the office of Dr. Geoffrey Landis, a fellowship-trained foot and ankle orthopaedic surgeon with the Tucson Orthopaedic Institute.

“In Michael’s case, his options were really an ankle fusion versus an ankle replacement,” Landis said. “He was well aware of the options and the subsequent results of those options.” Landis added, “Thankfully, he worked very hard throughout his therapy to maintain motion in his ankle,” making him an even more appropriate candidate for ankle replacement as opposed to ankle fusion.

Over the last five to 10 years, ankle replacement surgery has progressed enough that it has become a more viable option on the scale of the more commonly seen hip replacement. “We now look at ankle replacement as a way to give people a more functional return to life along with pain relief,” Landis said.

In April of 2011, after months of living in debilitating pain and nearly two years after the initial injury, Hill went in for the ankle replacement surgery in Tucson. After a successful surgery with “little to no complications to speak of,” Landis said Hill’s subsequent rehabilitation and recovery have been a model success. “Here I am two years later and it’s the best move of my life,” said Hill, who is pain-free with 90 to 95 percent of his original mobility. “I can’t run, but that’s fine. I don’t plan on doing much of that anyway.”

Following 10 months of physical therapy sessions twice a week, his productivity is back to near the original level as well. “It’s easier to get around and do everything,” he said. “I’ve never broken a bone in my life until I got older. I don’t have anything to compare it to. All I know is I’m a hell of a lot happier.”

These types of ankle replacement surgeries are becoming more common, Landis said. He, himself, will perform about 15 to 20 of them every year.

Hill said he wanted to share his story because, before his injury and subsequent research, he had heard very little in the way of ankle replacement surgery. “Knee and hip replacement surgeries are so widely publicized, but you never hear about this,” he said. “I thought if word got out, more people could benefit.”

Written by Derek Jordan

As published in the Sierra Vista Herald, January 20, 2013