FIRST PERSON | A team of Harvard engineers has come up with a super gel that they believe could eventually replace many knee surgeries. To an osteoarthritis patient facing two knee replacements, a product that could eliminate the need for the procedures is an exciting development.
Osteoarthritis is synonymous with cartilage degeneration for many Americans. According to Medical News Today, osteoarthritis strikes more than one out of three who are 65 or older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that knee and hip joint surgeries represent 35 percent of all arthritis-related procedures performed during hospitalizations.
Osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. It's the end result of the years of joint wear and tear that breaks down cartilage protecting the ends of bones. This type of arthritis can strike any joint, but the most common sites are the hands, neck, lower back, knees, and hips.
Osteoarthritis symptoms typically develop slowly, then progressively worsen, according to the Mayo Clinic. Patients with initial tenderness and stiffness usually face pain and loss of flexibility. A grating sensation in the joint and bone spurs around it is also common. When over-the-counter medications, narcotics, and physical therapy fail to provide an acceptable quality of life, the only remaining alternatives are injections of cortisone or lubricants and surgery to realign bones or replace joints.
As a former pianist, I was upset when I developed unsightly joint swelling and stiffness in my hands in my early 50s. However, this was nothing compared to the pain I suffered with a meniscus tear five years later. Cautioned to avoid a surgical repair of the knee because the immunosuppressants I must take could interfere with healing, I suffered for several years.
Three years ago, I had the surgery. Afterward, my knee felt worse than before the procedure and was perpetually swollen despite 20 physical therapy sessions. The culprit was apparently osteoarthritis more advanced than anticipated and now in both knees. The "fix" is replacement of both knees. Surgeons have declined to operate because of my immunity problem.
Osteoarthritis in the knee has been growing more prevalent due to rising levels of obesity and an aging population. The Harvard team sought to tackle cartilage regeneration by tissue engineering. They designed a self-healing hydrogel that could become the treatment of choice for many joint defects -- one that could avoid the need for complex revision surgeries.
The engineers created the super gel from a mixture of polyacrylamide and alginate. It's so elastic that it stretches to 21 times its original length. It's also tough and resists cracking.
After physical therapy, I underwent successive sets of injections of a lubricant to cushion my knees. The last pair had no apparent effect. If additional research confirms the new super gel could replace the knee surgeries I need, I'd be willing to try it.Vonda J. Sines has published thousands of print and online health and medical articles. She specializes in diseases and conditions that affect the quality of life.
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