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Biomechanical and Finite-Element Analysis of Femoral Pin-Site Fractures Following Navigation-Assisted Total Knee Arthroplasty

Sun, Houyi PhD1,2,*; Zhang, Haifeng PhD1,*; Wang, Tianhao MS1,*; Zheng, Kai PhD1; Zhang, Weicheng MS1; Li, Wenming MS1; Zhang, Wen MS3,a; Xu, Yaozeng PhD1,a; Geng, Dechun PhD1,a

Author Information
The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery: July 19, 2022 - Volume - Issue - 10.2106/JBJS.21.01496
doi: 10.2106/JBJS.21.01496
  • Open
  • PAP


Pin-site fracture is a catastrophic postoperative complication of navigated and robotic total knee arthroplasty (TKA). In these techniques, fixation pins are installed and removed again intraoperatively, leaving an unfilled pin track in the femoral shaft1,2. The incidence of pin-site fractures varies greatly in the literature3,4. Given the large volume and continued rapid growth of navigated and robotic TKA5,6, the assessment of the risk of pin-site fractures and their prevention are of great clinical importance.

It has been suggested that pin-site fractures are associated with obesity, osteoporosis, and poor drilling locations7-9. Our surgical team also encountered a case of femoral pin-site fracture in a femur that had been eccentrically drilled (i.e., resulting in a pin track that did not pass through the center of the bone). Operative factors that affect the risk of pin-site fracture may include the location of the pin track (height and eccentricity), diameter of the pin track, number of cortical layers involved, and iatrogenic bone destruction. Current studies have focused on the treatment of pin-site fracture10. However, there is a lack of relevant biomechanical evidence regarding their causation. For example, to our knowledge the severity of eccentricity as a risk factor for pin-site fractures remains undiscussed.

Rabbit femora have been used in mechanical simulations of human femora for decades11,12 because of the similarity in their shape (including anterior and lateral bowing of the femora) and biomechanical properties. Finite-element analysis (FEA) is also widely used as an effective method for studying femoral biomechanics13. In this study, biomechanical tests combined with FEA were used to investigate the biomechanical effect of pin track location on pin-site fracture occurrence.

Materials and Methods

Specimens and Preparation

Fifty adult New Zealand rabbits with a weight range of 2.5 to 3.5 kg were purchased from the Animal Experimental Center of Soochow University and raised in a clean animal house. After euthanasia, both femora were harvested in their entirety without soft tissue and wrapped with gauze soaked in normal saline solution. The femora were stored at −20 °C for the subsequent experiments.

Drilling and Embedding

Seventy-five of the femoral specimens were used for destructive biomechanical tests following drilling: 25 right femora were used for the torsional test, 25 left femora were used for the 3-point bending test, and 15 right and 10 left femora were used for the compression test. The remaining 25 femora underwent micro-computed tomography (CT) scanning. The specimens for each test were randomly assigned to 5 groups: the intact control group (no drilling), standard drilling group, slightly eccentric drilling group, severely eccentric drilling group, and high drilling group (n = 5 each).

The diameter and direction of the drill hole were set in reference to the OrthoPilot (Aesculap) navigated TKA system (Figs. 1-A and 1-B). Details regarding the size correspondence between rabbit and human femora are provided in Figure Sup1 and Table Sup1 in the Appendix. Drill holes were created using a 1.2-mm-diameter drill operated at a constant speed. Drilling was performed perpendicular to the bone, from anteromedial to posterolateral” (at 45° to the anteroposterior axis of the femur); the drilling height and eccentricity of each group are shown in Figure 1-C. Photographs and radiographs of each group were recorded (Figs. 1-D and 1-E).

Fig. 1:
Figs. 1-A through 1-E Drilling methods and authentication. Fig. 1-A Anchorage of passive transmitters in OrthoPilot navigation-assisted TKA. Fig. 1-B Anteroposterior radiograph of a pin-site fracture case. Fig. 1-C Diagrams showing drilling location and direction. Fig. 1-D Photographs (anterior view and drill hole view) of each group before biomechanical tests. Fig. 1-E Anteroposterior radiographs of each group after drilling.

After drilling, femora for torsional and compression tests were embedded in the same manner to allow for the subsequent biomechanical tests. Both ends were aligned along the same central axis of the femur (see Figure Sup2 in the Appendix).

Radiographic and Micro-CT Analysis

As radiography and CT provide important diagnostic evidence for fractures, we also performed imaging examinations. Anteroposterior radiography (Siemens) of the femoral specimens was performed to document the gross appearance of the femora before and after the biomechanical testing of all groups. In addition, the femora were scanned using high-resolution micro-CT (Bruker SkyScan 1176; 18 μm per layer, 0.7° rotation step). Analyzed parameters including the cortical defect area and distance between the centers of the cortical drill holes divided by the femoral diameter (center distance/transverse diameter). In addition, 3D models were created for better views of the drilling channels.

Biomechanical Analysis

Femora were thawed at room temperature and stored in normal saline solution until tested. Biomechanical parameters of the femora were measured with a universal material testing system (Instron ElectroPuls E10000). The failure load, failure displacement, and stiffness were recorded and analyzed using Bluehill 2.0 and WaveMatrix software (Instron). The system was programmed to stop immediately after the occurrence of fracture.

For the torsional tests, the cylinders in which the ends of the femur had been potted were clamped and twisted until femoral fracture occurred. Data including maximum torque, peak twist (twist at which fracture occurred), and torsional stiffness were recorded and analyzed. For the 3-point bending tests, the femoral samples were supported at both ends, with a span of 60 mm and the anterior side of the bone on the bottom. Displacement-controlled loading was applied to the posterior end of the femur until fracture occurred. The measured biomechanical properties included failure load and failure displacement. For the axial compression tests, femoral specimens were axially compressed at a fixed speed. The failure load, failure displacement, and compressive stiffness were recorded. The loading rates in the tests were held constant at values determined on the basis of related research in the literature14-17: 5°/min in the torsional tests and 3 mm/min in the 3-point bending and axial compression tests. The femora were kept moist with normal saline solution throughout the tests. The failure load and failure displacement were derived from the load-displacement curves, which typically exhibited a pronounced peak near the end of the curve.

Finite-Element Model

CT images of a femur from a normal adult (a 30-year-old man 1.73 m tall and weighing 65 kg) were imported into Mimics 21.0 (Materialise) for 3D modeling of the femur. The femoral model consisted of cancellous and cortical bone. The geometric model of the femur and pin track was created by Geomagic 12.0 (Raindrop) and Creo Parametric 5.0 (PTC) engineering software. A 4.5-mm Kirschner wire model was created and superimposed on the femoral model; subtraction of the overlap yielded a 4.5-mm-diameter pin track in the femur. The drilling location varied among the groups: in the intact control group and standard, slightly eccentric, and severely eccentric drilling groups, the drilling was performed 100 mm from the distal end the of the femur. In the high drilling group, the drilling was at a height of 133 mm. The direction and eccentricity for each group were consistent with those used in the biomechanical tests (see Fig. Sup3 in the Appendix).

The abovementioned femoral models with pin tracks were then imported into Hypermesh (Altair) for mesh creation and definition of material properties, as in previous studies18. The elastic modulus was set to 16,800 MPa for cortical bone and 840 MPa for cancellous bone, and the Poisson ratio was set to 0.3 for both cortical and cancellous bone. This finite-element model of the femur has been validated in previous studies19. The total number of elements and total nodal points in the model are shown in Table I. ANSYS 19.1 (Ansys) was used to set loads and constraints and to obtain stress and deformation results.

TABLE I - Number of Elements and Nodal Points in FEA Modeling
Group Total Elements Total Nodal Points
Intact control 557,282 813,202
Standard 558,572 879,138
Slightly eccentric 556,645 876,642
Severely eccentric 557,236 877,198
High 557,100 876,760

Boundary and Loading Conditions

All nodes of the distal femoral condyle were fully constrained13. For torsional load, 12 Nm of torque was applied to the femoral head. For 3-point bending, the displacement of both the proximal and distal nodes of the femur was constrained, and 500 N of force was applied perpendicular to the middle of the femur. For compression, 1,500 N of axial compression was applied to the femoral head to simulate standing on 1 leg. We analyzed the von Mises stress distribution, the maximum von Mises stress, and deformation in each simulation. The finite-element modeling and the procedure have been validated in our published study20.

Definition of the Safe Range

FEA was used to identify the safe range of drilling eccentricity. Nineteen equally spaced points were used to divide the transverse diameter of the femur into 20 equal 1.68-mm portions at the standard drilling height. A finite-element model corresponding to a drilling axis passing through each of these points was created (resulting in a total of 19 models). The models were grouped according to eccentricity (drilling through the center of the bone, L1 through L9 for increasing anterolateral eccentricity, and M1 through M9 for increasing posteromedial eccentricity). We analyzed the von Mises stress distribution, the maximum von Mises stress, and the deformation in torsion, compression, and bending simulations. For each simulation, the cumulative sum (CUSUM) method, a reliable way to define the turning point in a series21, was applied to find the inflection point in each of the 2 eccentricity groups.

Statistical Analysis

Each mechanical test was performed on at least 5 specimens, and all were successful and were included in the analysis. The results were expressed as the mean and standard deviation (SD). GraphPad Prism 7.0 was used for statistical analysis. One-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) was used to determine significance; differences were considered significant if p < 0.05.

Source of Funding

This work was supported by grants from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (82072425, 82072498, 81873991, 81873990), Young Medical Talents of Jiangsu Province (QNRC2016751), Natural Science Foundation of Jiangsu Province (BK20180001, BE2021650), Priority Academic Program Development of Jiangsu Higher Education Institutions (PAPD), and Special Project of Diagnosis and Treatment Technology for Key Clinical Diseases in Suzhou (LCZX202003).


Micro-CT images of transverse and longitudinal sections of the pin track showed that the drilling results in each group met the plan (Fig. 2-A). The drilling edges were straight and neat, which could be observed in 3D models viewed from the perspective of the drilling direction (Fig. 2-B). It is worth noting that in the severely eccentric group, the drilling path notched the inner cortex of the femur. No fractures or additional bone destruction occurred while drilling. The mean area of the cortical defect was greater for eccentric drilling and high drilling than for the standard position, especially in the severely eccentric group (Fig. 2-C). The results of the center distance/transverse diameter showed that cortical drill holes were significantly closer in the severely eccentric group (Fig. 2-D).

Fig. 2:
Figs. 2-A through 2-D Radiographic verification and analysis of drilling. Data are shown as mean ± SD. **P < 0.01. Fig. 2-A Micro-CT images of the transverse section and longitudinal section of a pin track in each group. Fig. 2-B 3D models showing drill holes. Fig. 2-C Mean area of cortical bone defects (mm2). Fig. 2-D Center distance/transverse diameter.

Biomechanical tests confirmed that severely eccentric drilling significantly weakened the biomechanical strength of the femora. The torsional test (Fig. 3-A) showed that the maximum torque and peak twist in the severely eccentric drilling group were significantly smaller than those in the control group (Figs. 3-B and 3-C), indicating that the ability of a femur to resist torsion is impaired by severely eccentric drilling. Slightly eccentric or high drilling did not lead to this phenomenon. There was no significant difference in torsional stiffness among all groups (Fig. 3-D). Furthermore, spiral fractures were the predominant fracture type in each group in the torsional test (Figs. 3-E and 3-F). Both drill holes were included in the fracture lines in all 5 specimens in the severely eccentric group, revealing the severe stress concentration at the drill holes (Table II). In contrast, no drill holes were involved in the fractures in any of the other groups.

Fig. 3:
Figs. 3-A through 3-F Torsional testing. Data are shown as mean ± SD. *P < 0.05, **p < 0.01, ***p < 0.001. ns = not significant. Fig. 3-A Test setup. Figs. 3-B, 3-C, and 3-D Maximum torque (Nm), peak twist (°), and torsional stiffness (Nm/°). Fig. 3-E Anterior view of femora after testing. Fig. 3-F Anteroposterior radiographs after testing.
TABLE II - Summary of Fracture Types and Fracture Lines in Biomechanical Experiments
Torsional Test 3-Point Bending Test Axial Compression Test
Fractures Fractured Drill Holes* Fractures Fractured Drill Holes* Fractures Fractured Drill Holes*
Intact control 5 spiral 1 incomplete, 4 transverse 2 incomplete, 2 oblique, 1 transverse
Standard 4 spiral, 1 incomplete 0 3 incomplete, 2 transverse 0 3 incomplete, 1 oblique, 1 comminuted 2
Slightly eccentric 4 spiral, 1 incomplete 0 3 incomplete, 2 transverse 0 1 incomplete, 2 splitting, 1 transverse, 1 comminuted 2
Severely eccentric 5 spiral 10 4 oblique, 1 comminuted 8 3 incomplete, 1 transverse, 1 oblique 2
High 5 spiral 0 1 incomplete, 4 oblique 3 2 incomplete, 2 comminuted, 1 splitting 4
*Number of drill holes involved in fractures.

The failure load of the femur in the 3-point bending test (Fig. 4-A) was significantly lower in the severely eccentric drilling group than in the control group. There were no significant differences in failure displacement and stiffness among the groups (Figs. 4-B, 4-C, and 4-D). Transverse and incomplete fractures made up all of the fractures caused by 3-point bending in the intact control group, the standard drilling group, and the slightly eccentric group, and no drill holes were included in the fracture lines in those groups (Figs. 4-E and 4-F, Table II).

Fig. 4:
Figs. 4-A through 4-F Three-point bending testing. Data are shown as mean ± SD. **P < 0.01. ns = not significant. Fig. 4-A Test setup. Figs. 4-B, 4-C, and 4-D Failure load (N), failure displacement (mm), and stiffness (N/mm). Fig. 4-E Anterior view of femora after testing. Fig. 4-F Anteroposterior radiographs after testing.

The compression test (Fig. 5-A) showed no significant differences in maximum compression load, maximum deformation, or stiffness among the drilling groups (Figs. 5-B, 5-C, and 5-D). Compression resulted in comminuted fractures in the standard, slightly eccentric, and high drilling groups. The number of drill holes included in the fractures varied from 2 to 4 per group (Figs. 5-E and 5-F, Table II). Interestingly, the only drill breakage occurred in the severely eccentric group.

Fig. 5:
Figs. 5-A through 5-F Axial compression testing. Data are shown as mean ± SD. **P < 0.01. ns = not significant. Fig. 5-A Test setup. Figs. 5-B, 5-C, and 5-D Failure load (N), failure displacement (mm), and compressive stiffness (N/mm). Fig. 5-E Anterior view of femora after testing. Fig. 5-F Anteroposterior radiographs after testing.

The FEA results provided comparisons of the stress distribution and deformation of the human femur under simulated stress. The von Mises stress distribution is shown in the maps in Figures 6-A, 6-B, and 6-C; the maximum values are shown in Tables III and IV. In the torsional simulation, the local stress near the drill hole was highest in the severely eccentric group: 31.02 MPa, which was 88.1% higher than that in the standard group. Differences in deformation across the groups were very small, suggesting that torsional deformation did not depend on drilling eccentricity. In the compression simulation, the maximum von Mises stress was highest in the severely eccentric group, as was the deformation. In the 3-point bending simulation, the maximum von Mises stress and deformation results showed little difference with the amount of eccentricity.

Fig. 6:
Figs. 6-A, 6-B, and 6-C Stress distributions in finite-element analysis. Fig. 6-A In torsion. Fig. 6-B In 3-point bending. Fig. 6-C In axial compression.
TABLE III - Maximum von Mises Stress in Finite-Element Analysis
Group Maximum von Mises Stress (MPa)
Torsional 3-Point Bending Compression
Intact control 9.25 56.99 37.35
Standard 16.49 65.77 54.47
Slightly eccentric 18.48 76.44 61.53
Severely eccentric 31.02 67.06 155.46
High 18.49 63.51 106.19

TABLE IV - Deformation in Finite-Element Analysis
Group Deformation (mm)
Torsional 3-Point Bending Compression
Intact control 0.62 0.32 1.41
Standard 0.63 0.31 1.42
Slightly eccentric 0.63 0.31 1.42
Severely eccentric 0.63 0.3 1.45
High 0.63 0.34 1.42

The overall safe range of eccentricity was found to lie between 50% of the radius in the anterolateral direction and 70% in the posteromedial direction. The stress distribution in additional torsion and compression analyses is shown in Figure Sup4 in the Appendix. The inflection points of von Mises stress were found at the same eccentricities in all of these torsion and compression analyses as well: 50% anterolateral and 70% posteromedial. In the 3-point bending analysis, there was no obvious inflection point (Figs. 7-A through 7-F). Taking these 2 inflection points as boundaries, the range of possible eccentricities can be divided into a safe zone and a risk zone (Fig. 7-G). Within the safe zone, we further defined a subzone with maximum torsional von Mises stress of <20 MPa and maximum compressive von Mises stress of <60 MPa (ranging from 10% anterolateral eccentricity to 20% posteromedial eccentricity) as strongly recommended for drilling, and the remainder of the safe zone as moderately recommended (Fig. 7-H).

Fig. 7:
Figs. 7-A through 7-H Safe range of drilling eccentricity. Figs. 7-A, 7-B, and 7-C Maximum von Mises stress with CUSUM curves for the anterolateral eccentric drilling group. Figs. 7-D, 7-E, and 7-F Maximum von Mises stress with CUSUM curves for the posteromedial eccentric drilling group. Figs. 7-G and 7-H Schematic diagrams of the safe range.


Navigational and robotic tools have been increasingly utilized in TKA because of their advantages in accuracy of alignment restoration and soft-tissue balancing22-25. However, surgeons should also be aware of the potential complications related to navigation26. During drilling in navigated or robotic TKA, local periosteal tissue remains unstripped and direct vision and intraoperative fluoroscopy are not used, increasing the risk of eccentric drilling. Also, drill holes remain unfilled after the procedure, increasing the risk of a pin-site fracture after a transient low-energy event.

Pin-site fracture has been described as an uncommon complication of navigated TKA28. Wysocki et al. reported a pin-site fracture incidence of approximately 1%, close to the incidence of deep infection29. Surgical factors predisposing to pin-site fractures may include a poor prosthesis position, soft-tissue trauma, an oversized component, transcortical pin fixation, and repeated drilling8,30.

Our study systematically explored the role of pin track location in the pin-site fracture risk from a biomechanical point of view. We found that the eccentricity is an important pin-site parameter. Severely eccentric drilling should be considered an iatrogenic “unforced error.” The effect of eccentric drilling on fracture risk varied with the type of biomechanical mechanism. Drilling that was slightly eccentric (by 1/4 of the diameter) or high acted comparably to the control drilling parameters in terms of biomechanical safety. However, severe eccentricity significantly affected the biomechanical strength of the femur, including in torsion, compression, and 3-point bending, with torsional resistance being weakened the most obviously. Furthermore, drill holes in the severely eccentric drilling group were more often included in the fracture lines in the torsional group, confirming the predicted stress concentration at severely eccentric drill holes. In addition to elevating the pin-site fracture risk, eccentric drilling can also elevate the risks of other complications. A study based on TKA using the Mako robotic arm (Stryker) suggested that transcortical drilling may lead to thermal osteonecrosis and even pin-site infection26. Interestingly, the only occurrence of drill breakage in the present study was in the severely eccentric group, suggesting that the drill experienced greater shear force when notching the cortex.

The assessment of the safe range indicated that medial eccentricity was better tolerated than lateral eccentricity, and severe eccentricity should be avoided in order to reduce the risk of pin-site fracture. The importance of drilling within the safe zone must be emphasized. It should also be noted that our findings are not limited to femoral pin-site fractures following TKA; they should be valuable in other procedures that involve femoral drilling, such as traction pin insertion and internal fixation. Spiral fractures were the most common type in the biomechanical and clinical results. Therefore, patients with drilling eccentricity in the risk zone should be warned of the risk that femoral torsion can result in a fracture, and should be avoided while the bone is healing.

Additional factors may be related to the risk of pin-site fractures. When designing the workflow, the diameter and number of drill holes should be minimized, as should the volume of anchors. Patient factors predisposing to femoral fracture may include obesity31, primary osteoporosis32, diabetes33, and malignancies34. Obesity results in greater weight-bearing, and osteoporosis implies reduced biomechanical strength of the femur. We conjecture that the safe zone for drilling in obese or osteoporotic patients would therefore be narrower. Perioperative treatments for such underlying diseases, as well as increased vigilance, are advised in these patients. Extra attention should also be given to patients with a high body mass index because of the reduced drilling accuracy due to thickened soft tissue in addition to the greater load on the femur.

We propose the following clinical recommendations based on our analysis of pin-site fracture risk. First, all arthroplasty systems in which pinning is performed should provide an optimal drilling location or at least a safe zone. Second, eccentricity correction devices need to be developed to improve drilling accuracy. Orthopaedic surgeons should appreciate the learning curve when utilizing new navigational or robotic systems. Evaluation of the pin-site fracture risk should be included throughout management of TKA. Surgeons should be alert to postoperative thigh pain in high-risk patients (obese, osteoporotic, and/or those with eccentric drilling) and limit their weight-bearing during recovery. Most pin-site fractures occurred within 3 months after surgery35. Perioperative drill hole management should be noted, including bone grafting, material filling, bone-targeted medication, etc. Surgical treatment of pin-site fractures depends on the fracture type and site26,35. We found that the stress release at the pin-site actually protected the periprosthetic area. Hence, most pin-site fractures can be treated as simple femoral shaft fractures that do not require revision of the prosthesis28,36,37.

There are limitations to this study that need to be acknowledged. Investigation of the loading rate variation would improve the understanding of risk factors for pin-site fractures. In addition, underlying diseases including obesity and osteoporosis should be discussed. Two-pin navigation and robotic TKA are also commonly used, which calls for comparative studies. These provide directions for future research regarding femoral pin-site fractures.


Supporting material provided by the authors is posted with the online version of this article as a data supplement at (


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