Small subchondral drill holes improve marrow stimulation of articular cartilage defects

Mona Eldracher, Patrick Orth, Magali Cucchiarini, Dietrich Pape, Henning Madry*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

97 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Subchondral drilling is an established marrow stimulation technique.

Hypothesis: Osteochondral repair is improved when the subchondral bone is perforated with small drill holes, reflecting the physiological subchondral trabecular distance.

Study Design: Controlled laboratory study.

Methods: A rectangular full-thickness chondral defect was created in the trochlea of adult sheep (n = 13) and treated with 6 subchondral drillings of either 1.0 mm (reflective of the trabecular distance) or 1.8 mm in diameter. Osteochondral repair was assessed after 6 months in vivo by macroscopic, histological, and immunohistochemical analyses and by micro-computed tomography.

Results: The application of 1.0-mm subchondral drill holes led to significantly improved histological matrix staining, cellular morphological characteristics, subchondral bone reconstitution, and average total histological score as well as significantly higher immunoreactivity to type II collagen and reduced immunoreactivity to type I collagen in the repair tissue compared with 1.8-mm drill holes. Analysis of osteoarthritic changes in the cartilage adjacent to the defects revealed no significant differences between treatment groups. Restoration of the microstructure of the subchondral bone plate below the chondral defects was significantly improved after 1.0-mm compared to 1.8-mm drilling, as shown by higher bone volume and reduced thickening of the subchondral bone plate. Likewise, the microarchitecture of the drilled subarticular spongiosa was better restored after 1.0-mm drilling, indicated by significantly higher bone volume and more and thinner trabeculae. Moreover, the bone mineral density of the subchondral bone in 1.0-mm drill holes was similar to the adjacent subchondral bone, whereas it was significantly reduced in 1.8-mm drill holes. No significant correlations existed between cartilage and subchondral bone repair.

Conclusion: Small subchondral drill holes that reflect the physiological trabecular distance improve osteochondral repair in a translational model more effectively than larger drill holes. Clinical Relevance: These results have important implications for the use of subchondral drilling for marrow stimulation, as they support the use of small-diameter bone-cutting devices.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2741-2750
Number of pages10
JournalAmerican Journal of Sports Medicine
Issue number11
Publication statusPublished - 8 Nov 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • articular cartilage repair
  • marrow stimulation
  • micro-CT
  • sheep
  • subchondral bone
  • subchondral drilling


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