Did you know that more than 90 million Americans may have some form of arthritis? That’s from a 2017 report from the Arthritis Foundation. About a third of those cases are osteoarthritis, which is possibly the largest single cause of disability in adults.
Osteoarthritis develops slowly over time due to daily wear and tear, or as a result of specific injuries. There’s no cure, and until recently pain management was about the best that anyone could hope for.
But now, a new treatment is available that can eliminate the pain of arthritis in small joints like the feet and toes, and help your joints to function properly again. Synthetic cartilage implants have been a life-changer for our patients, and they could help you too.
Osteoarthritis: A Brief Overview
Joints—the place where two bones come together—are incredibly complex. A lot of structures must work together properly in order for the bones to move efficiently. Muscles that move the bones. Ligaments that hold them together. And cartilage that protects them and allows them to glide smoothly.
Cartilage—the same stuff your ears and tip of your nose is made out of—is a soft and rubbery connective tissue that protects the ends of bones where they meet at a joint. Cartilage is firm yet flexible and slippery, and when healthy it allows for nearly frictionless and smooth motion. It also keeps the bones from getting too close to one another, creating a natural gap.
However, over a long period of time, too much stress and injury can cause the cartilage in joints to break down. The surface of the cartilage becomes rough and textured, introducing friction that limits smooth joint motion and can cause pain.
Eventually, the cartilage may completely wear down, to the point where bones are grinding directly against one another. This can be extremely painful and make your joints very stiff and immobile. You might even feel or hear a grating sensation.
Traditional Treatment Options
Unfortunately, there’s no known way to reverse the deterioration and loss of cartilage in a joint after it has already occurred. Cartilage is avascular (that is, it does not contain blood vessels), and unlike other types of connective tissue, it cannot repair itself.
Because of this, most traditional arthritis treatment options are focused on controlling symptoms, strengthening surrounding tissues, and slowing the rate of cartilage loss. This includes the use of various painkillers, cortisone injections, physical therapy, and changes in behavior (exercise, shoes, braces, taping etc.).
Surgical treatment would be considered if these conservative options proved ineffective. Traditional surgical treatments include smoothing rough joint surfaces (which makes the cartilage slicker but also thinner), removing a portion of the joint itself (which leaves a gap of flexible scar tissue), and fusing the joint (which can eliminate pain, but also locks the joint in place). Although these surgeries can work, they all have obvious downsides, too.
Another option is replacing the joint itself with artificial components made of metal or plastic. This option might hold more promise in terms of restoring function, but when performed on the toe joint, complication risks are higher, and if it fails, follow-up surgeries are more likely to be unsuccessful as well.
Fortunately, there’s a new option available.
The Promise of Synthetic Cartilage
Rather than performing a total joint replacement, we may be able to simply replace the missing cartilage with an artificial implant.
The synthetic cartilage is made from a biocompatible organic polymer very similar to the material used in contact lenses for the eyes. It’s about the size of gum drop, and can be inserted into a hole in the end of the bone, created using special tools.
The synthetic cartilage is smooth, slippery, load-bearing, and much more durable than natural cartilage. It restores the natural space between bones and allows them to glide without friction. This not only relieves pain, but restores full, natural motion to the joint.
The entire procedure takes roughly half an hour, and does not require any cement, glue, or hardware. And unlike a total joint replacement, in the unlikely scenario that the synthetic cartilage would need to be removed or replaced, it would not adversely affect the success rate of any subsequent surgeries.
There’s even more good news. Recovery tends to be quite mild compared to similar foot surgeries. Although of course this varies from person to person, most people are back in regular shoes again within 4-6 weeks.
Is a synthetic cartilage implant the right solution for your arthritic toe? There’s only one way to find out. Give Dr. Alan Shih at Head to Toe Healthcare a call today. You can reach our Tucson office at (520) 545-0202.