You may have even started to get excited about it if you have sore, achy knees.
After all, a joint is made up of bones, cartilage, ligaments, and muscles.
The cartilage is at the very end of the bones, where they would rub together – except the cartilage acts as a cushion.
When cartilage gets damaged or injured, you end up with creaky, stiff, painful joints.
Which certainly sounds like a good time to get excited about cartilage replacement.
Unfortunately, that excitement might be premature. Only a portion of people with problematic knees are eligible for cartilage replacement surgeries. The only thing you can do is research, ask your doctor, and see if this option is for you.
So let’s look at closer at cartilage replacement and repair, and see if you could be a good candidate…
How Is Cartilage Replacement Different from Joint Replacement?
Joint replacement is a surgery where a natural joint is replaced with an artificial one. The surgeon will remove the entire joint, and insert the artificial one, affixing it to the surrounding bones.
With cartilage replacement, just the cartilage – the joint cushion – is affected. The rest of the joint is left alone. There are six different procedures that are out of the experimental stages (more on those in a moment), but the key to each one is that the joint stays intact. This makes cartilage replacement attractive because it’s a less invasive procedure with a better prognosis for full recovery.
What Exactly Is Cartilage Replacement?
Cartilage replacement has been around for decades, but has just recently come into its own thanks to other medical advances. And while these six procedures may not be commonplace yet, they’re not experimental either. As complex as the procedures sound, only the last two require incisions. The first four can be done with an arthroscope, using small punctures rather than large cuts.
1. Microfracture. Often, when cartilage gets damaged, its blood flow gets damaged as well. Without blood flow, no new cells can grow. So the goal of microfracture is to create new blood flow so that new cartilage cells can grow. Holes are made in the joint’s surface, allowing the blood to flow, bringing new cells with it.
2. Drilling. This cartilage replacement works almost exactly the way you would it expect it to by its name. Multiple holes are drilled into the damaged bone, which causes the body to begin to heal itself. Part of the healing process is rejuvenating joint cartilage.
3. Abrasion arthroplasty. Abrasion arthroplasty works the same way drilling does, only burrs are used instead of drills. The body responds the same way, however.
4. Osteochondral autograft transplantation. Think of this procedure as a graft, because that’s very much what it is. Healthy cartilage is taken from the joint and grafted onto the injured cartilage, helping to strengthen the damaged area.
5. Osteochondral allograft transplantation. One of the two cartilage replacement procedures that require an incision, osteochondral allograft transplantation is similar to osteochondral autograft transplantation. The big difference is the source of the graft cartilage. In an osteochondral allograft transplantation, the graft comes from an organ donor rather than the patient themselves.
6. Autologous chondrocyte implantation. The longest of the six procedures, it’s also the most complex. First, healthy cartilage is taken from the patient and sent to a laboratory where it’s grown for three to five weeks. This allows the number of cartilage cells to increase. Once enough new cells have been produced, they are used to fill in and graft around the original damaged cartilage. And since they are the patient’s own cells, there’s no risk of rejection.
So Who’s Eligible?
The best candidates for any of these cartilage replacement procedures are people who have otherwise healthy joints. Many are athletes who have sustained a sports injury.
Some of the procedures are even recommended specifically for younger patients.
None are recommended for people with age-related arthritis.
If You’re Not Eligible – Now What?
If you find out you’re not a good candidate for cartilage replacement, don’t get frustrated! You still have plenty of options to keep you moving and feeling better!
Be sure to eat foods that are good for your joints – and avoid the ones that will make aches and stiffness worse.
Keep moving, because a joint in motion stays in motion!
Lose weight if you need to. Every pound you lose is less pressure your sore joints need to carry.
Take to your doctor. You very well may be eligible for cartilage replacement and repair. And if you’re not – don’t worry! There are other ways to get smooth, comfortable, healthy joints!