Articular cartilage is the smooth, white tissue that covers the ends of bones where they come together to form joints. Healthy cartilage in our joints makes it easier to move. It allows the bones to glide over each other with very little friction.
Articular cartilage can be damaged by injury or normal wear and tear. Because cartilage does not heal itself well, doctors have developed surgical techniques to stimulate the growth of new cartilage. Restoring articular cartilage can relieve pain and allow better function. Most importantly, it can delay or prevent the onset of arthritis.
Surgical techniques to repair damaged cartilage are still evolving. It is hoped that as more is learned about cartilage and the healing response, surgeons will be better able to restore an injured joint.
The main component of the joint surface is a special tissue called hyaline cartilage. When it is damaged, the joint surface may no longer be smooth. Moving bones along a tough, damaged joint surface is difficult and causes pain. Damaged cartilage can also lead to arthritis in the joint.
The goal of cartilage restoration procedures is to stimulate new hyaline cartilage growth.
Identifying Cartilage Damage
In many cases, patients who have joint injuries, such as meniscal or ligament tears, will also have cartilage damage. This damage may be hard to diagnose because hyaline cartilage does not contain calcium and cannot be seen on an X-ray.
If other injuries exist with cartilage damage, doctors will address all problems during surgery.
Most candidates for articular cartilage restoration are young adults with a single injury, or lesion. Older patients, or those with many lesions in one joint, are less likely to benefit from the surgery.
The knee is the most common area for cartilage restoration. Ankle and shoulder problems may also be treated.
Many procedures to restore articular cartilage are done arthroscopically. During arthroscopy, your surgeon makes three small, puncture incisions around your joint using an arthroscope.
Some procedures require the surgeon to have more direct access to the affected area. Longer, open incisions are required. Sometimes it is necessary to address other problems in the joint, such as meniscal or ligament tears, when cartilage surgery is done.
In general, recovery from an arthroscopic procedure is quicker and less painful than a traditional, open surgery. Your doctor will discuss the options with you to determine what kind of procedure is right for you.
The most common procedures for cartilage restoration are:
- Autologous Chondrocyte Implantation
- Osteochondral Allograft Transplantation