Cartilage Transplant Treats Knee or Shoulder Pain

Do you have a painful knee, ankle or shoulder? Maybe you had an accident, a sports injury or you simply had a nasty fall. If you have pain in your knee, ankle or shoulder that hasn’t been resolved by other treatments, a cartilage transplant can be an effective way to reduce pain and improve joint function. The procedure, done by an orthopedic surgeon, may also delay osteoarthritis progression. Arthritis can develop in injured joints with cartilage defects.

A cartilage transplant is not for everyone. A good candidate for a cartilage transplant is an active young adult who is otherwise fit. A cartilage transplant can be performed on knees, ankles and shoulders. It’s performed for a joint condition called a focal cartilage defect. These defects can be a thinning in the cartilage the size of a dime, nickel or quarter. For a patient to be a good candidate for cartilage transplantation, the defect should have healthy surrounding cartilage. If the patient is over 50 with what we call diffuse generalized cartilage wear, we’ll likely recommend different treatments.

What Does a Cartilage Transplant Involve?

This procedure depends on the size and location of the cartilage defect. This procedure is sometimes performed as an arthroscopic surgery. That means it’s done with only tiny incisions and a small camera. This approach results in less trauma to the area and a much faster recovery.

Many cartilage transplantations are performed with open surgery. This technique is used for larger and multifocal defects (defects involving more than one spot). Knee cartilage transplants are sometimes combined with other procedures such as ligament reconstructions.

During the cartilage transplant procedure, the surgeon will implant cartilage cells in the knee, ankle or shoulder joint. The implanted cells can stimulate the growth of new cartilage and restore normal function. Depending on the location and size of the cartilage problem, donor cartilage for a knee, ankle or shoulder can come from you, from cadaver cells or a combination.

Knees — Damaged cartilage can lead to arthritis. In the knee there are two types of cartilage that can be repaired:

  • Articular cartilage — This is the smooth, white tissue that covers the ends of your bones where they come together to form joints. When the cartilage is healthy, it’s easy and comfortable to move the joint. But an injury can damage the cartilage, limit joint movement and, in some cases, make it painful. The larger and deeper the damage or lesion, the higher the risk of arthritis.
  • Meniscus cartilage — This is a C-shaped cushion of cartilage in the knee joint. A torn meniscus is a common sports injury. A surgeon may need to remove or trim out badly damaged cartilage. Without the meniscus cartilage, knee pain and osteoarthritis can develop. If there’s significant meniscal damage, a meniscal transplantation can be performed.

Ankles — Ankle instability, sprains, fractures and other injuries can damage the joint cartilage. Some patients have a developmental cartilage and bone issue called osteochondritis dissecans (OCD). This condition, most common in teenagers, can lead to cartilage and bone defects most often in the knee and ankle.

Shoulders — As with the knee, injuries can lead to arthritis. During a cartilage transplant, a surgeon can place donor cartilage around the shoulder cup and ball. The cartilage provides cushioning that can help eliminate pain and restore a wider range of motion.

If you have questions about cartilage transplants, or you wonder if you might be a candidate, ask your health care professional.

Meet the Author

Gerard G. Adler, MD is an orthopedics surgeon at the Aurora Wilkinson Medical Clinic in Summit, WI.

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The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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