Background Knee prosthesis instability (KPI) is a frequent cause of failure of total knee arthroplasty. Moreover, the degree of constraint required to achieve immediate and long-term stability in total knee arthroplasty (TKA) is frequently debated. Questions This review aims to define the problem, analyze risk factors, and review strategies for prevention and treatment of KPI. Methods A PubMed (MEDLINE) search of the years 2000 to 2010 was performed using two key words: TKA and instability. One hundred and sixty-five initial articles were identified. The most important (17) articles as judged by the author were selected for this review. The main criteria for selection were that the articles addressed and provided solutions to the diagnosis and treatment of KPI. Results Patient-related risk factors predisposing to post-operative instability include deformity requiring a large surgical correction and aggressive ligament release, general or regional neuromuscular pathology, and hip or foot deformities. KPI can be prevented in most cases with appropriate selection of implants and good surgical technique. When ligament instability is anticipated post-operatively, the need for implants with a greater degree of constraint should be anticipated. In patients without significant varus or valgus malalignment and without significant flexion contracture, the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) can be retained. However, the PCL should be sacrificed when deformity exists particularly in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, previous patellectomy, previous high tibial osteotomy or distal femoral osteotomy, and posttraumatic osteoarthritis with disruption of the PCL. In most cases, KPI requires revision surgery. Successful outcomes can only be obtained if the cause of KPI is identified and addressed. Conclusions Instability following TKA is a common cause of the need for revision. Typically, knees with deformity, rheumatoid arthritis, previous patellectomy or high tibial osteotomy, and posttraumatic arthritis carry higher risks of post-operative instability and are indications for more constrained TKA designs. Instability following TKA usually requires revision surgery which must address the cause of the instability for success.
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