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Original Article

Anat Cell Biol 2021; 54(3): 315-320

Published online September 30, 2021


Copyright © Korean Association of ANATOMISTS.

Radiological study of fabella in Omani subjects at a tertiary care center

Omar Darwish Al Matroushi1 , Srinivasa Rao Sirasanagandla2 , Ammar Al Shabibi1 , Athari Al Obaidani3 , Humoud Al Dhuhli4 , Sanjay Jaju5 , Mohamed Al Mushaiqri2

1College of Medicine and Health Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, 2Department of Human and Clinical Anatomy, College of Medicine and Health Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, 3Radiology Residency Program, Oman Medical Specialty Board, Muscat, 4Department of Radiology and Molecular Imaging, College of Medicine and Health Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, 5Department of Family Medicine & Public Health, College of Medicine and Health Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat, Oman

Correspondence to:Srinivasa Rao Sirasanagandla
Department of Human and Clinical Anatomy, College of Medicine and Health Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University, Muscat 123, Oman
E-mail: srinivasa@squ.edu.om

Received: July 24, 2020; Revised: April 7, 2021; Accepted: April 7, 2021

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/4.0/) which permits unrestricted non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Ethnic diversity is associated with variability in the prevalence rates of fabella. We aimed to evaluate the prevalence and the radiological features of fabella in Omani patients. This is a retrospective analysis of hospital electronic database of patients referred for radiological investigations (radiographs and magnetic resonance imaging) of the knee, at a tertiary care referral center. Descriptive statistics were performed to determine the prevalence of fabella. Chi-square test was used to determine the association between sex or age with respect to the presence of fabella. A total of 813 knee radiographs were reviewed for the presence of fabella. Fabella was found in 24.1% of total cases. A statistically significant sex difference was observed with respect to the presence of fabella in left knees in males (P<0.01). The presence of fabella was significantly associated with age groups for the right (P<0.05) and left knees (P<0.01). In magnetic resonance imaging film reviews, all the identified fabellae (20.2%) were bony structures and were located within the lateral head of the gastrocnemius muscle. There were no cartilaginous fabellae detected. The current study revealed a prevalence of 24.1% of fabella in Omani subjects which is almost similar to the results as seen in Caucasian ethnic populations.

Keywords: Prevalence, Sesamoid bones, Knee joint, Radiography

Fabella is one of the sesamoid bones in the lower limb. The term fabella refers to a “little bean” in Latin [1]. The fabella is located in the posterolateral corner of the knee on the lateral femoral condyle and embedded within the tendon of the lateral head of the gastrocnemius muscle. It can be felt by palpation and it may articulate with the posterior aspect of the lateral femoral condyle [2-5]. The fabella is formed by endochondral ossification, where it appears initially as a cartilaginous nodule and subsequently converts into a bone. However, in few individuals it remains unossified and persists as a cartilaginous nodule [6]. The main function of this bone is to stabilize the posterolateral structures of the knee joint through the fabellofibular ligament [7]. The fabella is variable in size and only a few studies have documented its dimensions. Its size changes from a tiny dot to a large body with a width of 22 mm [8]. It has been reported that the larger the size of the fabella, the greater the chances of it developing the symptoms [9].

Clinical identification of fabella is easy and frequently detected in the lateral knee radiographs. Rarely, in conditions such as osteoarthritic knees and intra-meniscal calcifications, this bone is confused with the intra-articular loose bodies or osteophytes [6, 10]. Although it is seen continuously in the tendon of gastrocnemius muscle in the non-hominoid animals like cats and dogs [6, 11, 12], in humans it is considered as an anatomical variant. Epidemiological studies have confirmed the ethnic variability in the prevalence rates of fabella among different populations. The reported prevalence rate of fabella ranged from 8.7% to 31.3% in western population [6, 11, 13], 31.25% to 85.8% in Asian population [5, 14, 15]. Sexual dimorphism in the variations of fabella has been reported with a male dominance [16]. The documented prevalence of fabella ranged from 4.3% to 52.8% in males [17] and 3.3% to 50% in females [18]. Both genetic and environmental factors influence have been demonstrated in variations of fabella. Evidence suggests that currently fabella occurrence is around 3.5 times more than seen 100 years ago indicating that a variation in prevalence is also of evolutionary significance [16].

The fabella is known to be associated with some clinical conditions, disorders and diseases. Some of these include osteoarthritis, chondromalacia and rheumatoid arthritis [19, 20]. It may compress the popliteal artery and the peroneal neve and causes popliteal artery entrapment syndrome and common peroneal nerve neuropathy [21-23], respectively. Furthermore, the fabella itself can be involved in dislocations and fractures resulting in fabellar syndrome [24-27]. However, the baseline information on the prevalence and radiological characteristics of the fabella among the Omani population remains unexplored.

This is a retrospective analysis of the Electronic Medical Records database of adult Omani patients (aged ≥20 years) at a tertiary care referral center in the Department of Radiology and Molecular Imaging in Oman from January 2019 to December 2019. The patients who were referred for radiological investigations of the knees i.e., radiographs (for prevalence and associated factors) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) (for tissue type only) in the year 2019 were included in the study. The Picture Archiving and Communication System (PACS) (Philips IntelliSpace version 4.4.516.21, Foster City, CA, USA) was used to review both the radiographs and MRI films. Lateral radiographs of the knee were used to identify the presence or absence of the bony fabella (Fig. 1). The tissue type of fabellae were documented exclusively based on the MRI findings on different planes of the knee (sagittal view/axial view) (Fig. 2). For MRI review, patients more than 45 years were excluded as increasing age affects the fabellar dimensions and causes ectopic calcification. Patients with a history of knee fractures and injuries, ligament injuries, areas of intra-articular loose bodies along the non-Omani patients were excluded. Institutional ethical committee approval was obtained prior to the start of the study (SQU-EC/209/19). Waiver of written informed consent was also obtained.

Figure 1. Lateral view of right (A) and left (B) knee radiograms showing the presence of bony fabella (arrows) in two different Omani subjects.

Figure 2. Sagittal (A) and axial (B) magnetic resonance imaging planes showing the presence of bony fabella (arrows).

Data analysis

The statistical analysis was performed by IBM SPSS software package (ver. 23; IBM Corp., Armonk, NY, USA) for windows. Descriptive statistics were used for analysis. Chi-square test was used to determine the association between sex or age with respect to the presence of fabella. A P-value<0.05 was considered statistically significant.

Radiographic films review

A total of 813 knee radiographs were reviewed. Among these, 388 (47.7%) were males and 425 (52.3%) were females and their mean age was 56.9 years (SD: 20.6 years; range: 20–100 years). The presence of a fabella was noted in 196 knees indicating an overall prevalence of 24.1%, in this study group. The sex-wise distribution of the fabella is presented in Table 1. The fabella was identified in 111 males (28.6% of total males radiographs, 13.7% of total radiographs) and in 85 females (20.0% of 425 females radiographs, 10.5% of the total radiographs). A statistical significant sex difference was observed in the occurrence of fabella in the left knee (P<0.01). However, no statistically significant sex difference was observed in the right knee (P=0.09). The distribution of the fabella according to different age groups is presented in Table 2. The presence of fabella is significantly associated with age groups for the right (P<0.05) and left knees (P<0.01) indicating that the ossification of fabella increases with an increasing age.

Table 1 . Association of presence of fabella with respect to sex

SexRight kneeLeft kneeTotal
Male51 (6.3)141 (17.3)60 (7.4)136 (16.7)388 (47.7)
Female40 (4.9)165 (20.3)45 (5.5)175 (21.5)425 (52.3)
Total91 (11.2)306 (37.6)105 (12.9)311 (38.3)813 (100)

Values are presented as number (%). No significant difference with sex on the right side knee (*P=0.09). Significant difference with sex on the left side knee **P<0.01.

Table 2 . Association of presence of fabella with respect to age

Age group (yr)Right kneeLeft kneeTotal
20–354 (0.5)58 (7.1)8 (1.0)62 (7.6)132 (16.2)
36–5015 (1.8)59 (7.3)9 (1.1)69 (8.5)152 (18.7)
51–6526 (3.2)63 (7.7)31 (3.8)62 (7.6)182 (22.4)
66–8027 (3.3)59 (7.3)26 (3.2)60 (7.4)172 (21.2)
>8019 (2.3)67 (8.2)31 (3.8)58 (7.1)175 (21.5)
Total91 (11.2)306 (37.6)105 (12.9)311 (38.3)813 (100)

Values are presented as number (%). Significant difference with age groups for right and left side knees respectively; *P<0.05 (right side knee across age groups); **P<0.01 (left side knee across age groups).

MRI knee review

A total of 119 MRI films of the knee were examined to identify the presence of fabella. The presence of fabella was noted in 20.2% (24/119) of cases. All the fabellae identified were bony structures and located within the lateral head of the gastrocnemius muscle. There were no cartilaginous fabellae detected in the study group.

Evidence from the epidemiological studies conducted in various parts of the world have indicated that the prevalence rate of fabella varies greatly among different ethnic groups (Table 3) [5, 6, 8, 10-15, 28-34]. All these studies have used either plain radiographs, MRI, cadaver dissection, or combinations of at least two methods to identify the fabella. Prevalence rate of fabella is found to be most common in Asian populations, followed by those from Oceania, South America, Europe, the Middle East, North America, and Africa [2]. Most of the studies from Far East Asian countries were conducted on cadavers in which cartilaginous fabella can easily be identified, which may have contributed to high prevalence [5, 8, 11, 12, 14, 30, 31]. Using the data from the systemic review study by Berthaume et al. (2019) [16], Hur et al. (2020) [20] estimated the overall prevalence rate of fabella reported from a total of 21,318 knees to be 20.2%. They also estimated the average prevalence rate of the fabella in the Western population and Asian population to be 15.9% and 38.2%, respectively [20].

Table 3 . Previous studies on the prevalence of fabella

StudyYearEthnic groupMethodNo. of samples (knees)Prevalence (%)
Kaplan [29]1961Caucasian (America)Cadaver1358.7
Takebe et al. [32]1983Asian (Japan)RadiographyNA33.4
Pritchett [33]1984Caucasian (America)Radiography15315
Yu et al. [13]1996Caucasian (America)MRI10019
Sarin et al. [6]1999Caucasian (America)Radiography11231.3
Minowa et al. [14]2004Asian (Japan)Cadaver21285.8
Kawashima et al. [5]2007Asian (Japan)Cadaver15066
Raheem et al. [34]2007Caucasian (Ireland)Cadaver229.1
Silva et al. [11]2010Caucasian (Brazil)Cadaver623.1
Phukubye and Oyedele [8]2011Caucasian and AfricanCadaver10223.5
Piyawinijwong et al. [30]2012Asian (Thailand)Cadaver18750.5
Zeng et al. [12]2012Asian (China)Cadaver and Radiography6186.9
Tabira et al. [31]2013Asian (Japan)Cadaver10268.6
Chew et al. [15]2014Asian (Singapore)Radiography and MRI8031.25
Egerci et al. [28]2017Caucasian (Turkey)Radiography100022.8
Pop et al. [10]2018Caucasian (Romania)Radiography and MRI43116.93
Present study2021Asian (Oman)Radiography; MRI813;11924.1; 20.2

Adapted from Egerci et al. Folia Morphol (Warsz) 2017;76:478-83 [28]. MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; NA, not available.

In Omani subjects, the prevalence of fabella was found to be 24.1% in lateral radiographs and 20.1% in MRI films. This difference in prevalence could be due to the different inclusion criteria with respect to the age used in the two screening methods. As limited age group patients were evaluated in the MRI study, we considered 24.1% as the more accurate prevalence of fabella (based on radiography) in Omani patients. Our findings are nearly similar to prevalence rates reported from Turkey (22.8%) [28]. Prevalence rate of fabella found in our study is within the ranges of 3.1%–31.3% that was reported in Western populations [6, 10, 11, 13, 29] and lower than the average prevalence rate of 38.2% that was reported in other Asian populations. However, it is much lower than the prevalence rates reported in Far East Asian countries; China (86.9%) and Japan (85.8%) [14].

It has been demonstrated that genetic factors control the fabellar formation whereas environmental factors control its ossification [7]. Sox9+/Scx+ progenitors under the influence of transforming growth factor β (TGFβ), BMP2, and BMP4 have been found to participate in the development of fabella [7]. Variations in the prevalence rates among different ethnic groups further support the hypothesis of genetic factors influence on formation of fabella [2]. Since studying genetic factors was beyond the scope of this study, we cannot comment on this aspect based on our study findings. On the other hand, authors have demonstrated that the high prevalence rate of fabella in Far East countries could be due to certain functional or behavioral habits like better nutrition and daily praying practices where frequent use of kneeling and squatting movements may have promoted the fabellar development and ossification. This was further supported by phylogenetic theory, where the continuous mechanical stimuli over the posterior aspect of the lateral femoral condyle increases the ossification of the fabella [6]. The above mentioned behavioral habits are quite common in Omanis and may explain the presence of fabella in nearly 25% of our patient sample.

In the existing literature, sexual dimorphism in variations of the fabella is still debatable. A few studies have found no association between sex and the occurrence of fabella [8, 15, 28]. However, evidence from the recent meta-analysis confirmed the sexual dimorphism in the prevalence of fabella with male dominance of 2.47% to 2.6% [2], which is similarly reflected in our study.

Development of fabella begins at 15 weeks of intrauterine life in the form of a cartilaginous nodule [35]. Although the exact age of the fabellar ossification is unknown, ossified fabellae were found at the age of as early as 12–14 years [36]. Various studies have quantified the association between the prevalence rates and age. Egerci et al. (2017) [28], Takebe et al. (1983) [32], and Tabira et al. (2013) [31] did not find differences in frequency of fabella among age groups. Contrary to these findings, Phukubye and Oyedele (2011) [8] and Kato et al. (2012) [37] found a higher prevalence of fabella in elderly individuals. Our study results concur with the recent meta-analysis which concluded that fabella prevalence rate increases with age [2].

Fabella can be present in the form of a cartilaginous or bony structure. Few cadaveric studies have found both cartilaginous and bony fabellae in their study subjects [5, 31]. In one of these studies, the prevalence of cartilaginous fabellae was found to be 45% and in another study it was 32% [31]. A cadaveric study described the structural details of the fabellae and categorized them into rigid and elastic structures. Around 36.3% of the identified fabellae were found to be elastic in structure. Moreover, the majority of the rigid fabella were osseous and a few were fibrotic in structure [12]. Among Asian population as reported by Chew et al. (2014) [15], all the identified fabellae were found to be bony structures with no cartilaginous fabellae identified following MRI screening. Similarly, in our present study all the observed fabellae were bony structures.

There are reports of pain in the posterolateral corner of the knee associated with the presence of fabella [27, 38]. Similarly, a high association between the presence of fabella and posterolateral knee pain has been reported by a population based study [10]. A house-to-house population study of different parts of Oman reported knee pain in 15% of females and 18% of males [39]. Though the observed prevalence of fabella among Omanis is low, the results of the present study are of clinical importance while considering the differential diagnosis in patients with knee pain.

The main strength of the present study is that we could investigate both prevalence and characteristics of the fabella by studying both plain radiographs and MRI films. This study being from a single-center, the findings cannot be generalized outside of the study environment. Also since we included only those subjects who underwent radiological investigations, the possibility of underestimation of the prevalence due to the selection bias cannot be ruled out.

In conclusion, the reported prevalence of fabella in Omani subjects is 24.1%. The present study is the first to document the prevalence of fabella in Omani population and will serve as a reference for future basic anatomical and orthopedic research in Oman. The reported baseline data of fabella is a clinically important consideration for the differential diagnosis and thus aids in better management of patients with knee pain.

Conceptualization: ODAM, SRS, HAD, MAM. Data acquisition: ODAM, SRS, AAS, AAO. Data analysis or interpretation: SRS, HAD, SJ. Drafting of the manuscript: ODAM, SRS, AAS, MAM. Critical revision of the manuscript: SRS, HAD, SJ. Approval of the final version of the manuscript: all authors.

No potential conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported.

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