Cartilage damage - Treatment 

Treating cartilage damage 

Knee replacement: an animation

This animation shows how knee replacement surgery is done and explains why it would be needed.

Media last reviewed: 22/11/2013

Next review due: 22/11/2015

Joint replacement

In cases of severe cartilage damage caused by underlying osteoarthritis the consultant may recommend replacing the joint with an artificial one.

Some commonly performed joint replacement operations are

Associated problems

Before cartilage damage can be repaired any associated problems need to be addressed. For example, damage to the knee can not only damage the cartilage but also the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The ACL is a tough band of tissue that joins the thigh bone to the shin bone at the knee joint.

The ACL may need to be repaired during surgery by grafting new tissue onto it. Read more about knee ligament surgery.

If there is damage to the bone that has then caused a limb to become misaligned, it may be necessary to cut a section of bone in order to strengthen the limb. This type of surgery is known as an osteotomy.

Having an operation

If your GP has suggested you may need surgery, this guide is for you

Non-surgical treatment

There are a number of non-surgical treatments that can help to relieve symptoms of damaged articular cartilage. They are described below.

  • Physiotherapy – exercises that strengthen the muscles surrounding or supporting your joint which may help reduce pressure on the joint and reduce pain.
  • Painkillers – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can help reduce swelling and pain. However, avoid taking ibuprofen if you have, or have had, a stomach problem, such as a stomach ulcer.
  • Supportive devices – such as a cane or leg brace.
  • Lifestyle changes – such as reducing activity that involves the affected joint.

In more severe cases of articular cartilage damage, non-surgical treatment may only provide short-term relief and surgery may be required.

Surgical treatment

Surgical treatment for damaged articular cartilage includes the following procedures:

  • arthroscopic lavage and debridement
  • marrow stimulation
  • mosaicplasty
  • allograft osteochondral transplantation
  • autologous chondrocyte implantation

These procedures are described in more detail below.

Arthroscopic lavage and debridement

Arthroscopic lavage and debridement is a technique used when pieces of cartilage have become loose in the joint, causing the joint to lock.

The surgeon makes a cut in the joint before using an arthroscope (a flexible tube with a camera on the end) to assess the damage. They then ‘clean out’ the joint using a saline (salt) solution. Loose cartilage fragments are removed using a device known as a shaver, which works in a similar way to a vacuum cleaner.

Arthroscopic lavage and debridement cannot repair the damaged cartilage, but it can help reduce pain and increase mobility.

Marrow stimulation

Marrow stimulation involves making tiny holes (microfractures) into the bone beneath the damaged cartilage using a small pointed instrument known as an awl. This releases the bone marrow from inside the bone and leads to a blood clot forming within the damaged cartilage.

The marrow cells then begin to stimulate production of new cartilage. The drawback to marrow stimulation is that the newly generated cartilage is fibrocartilage rather than hyaline cartilage. As fibrocartilage is not as supple as hyaline cartilage, there is a risk that after a few years it will wear away and further surgery may be needed.

Mosaicplasty

Mosaicplasty is a technique where small rods of healthy cartilage from the non-weight-bearing areas of a joint, such as the side of the knee, are removed and used to replace the damaged cartilage.

Mosaicplasty seems to be successful in most people. However it is only suitable for treating relatively minor cartilage injury. This is because removing too much healthy cartilage could damage the section of the body from where the cartilage was taken. 

Before having mosaicplasty, your surgeon should discuss the possible risks and benefits of the technique with you.

Allograft osteochondral transplantation (AOT)

If damage to your cartilage is thought too extensive to be treated with mosaicplasty an alternative procedure called allograft osteochondral transplantation (AOT) may be considered.

AOT is a similar procedure to mosaicplasty, but the cartilage is obtained from a recently deceased donor. The cartilage will be tested in a laboratory to make sure it is free from infection before being prepared for transplant.

Autologous chondrocyte implantation (ACI)

Autologous chondrocyte implantation (ACI) uses a two-stage technique. During the first stage the surgeon takes a small sample of cartilage cells from the edge of your knee during an arthroscopy.

The cells are sent to a laboratory and placed in an incubator where they are given nutrients to encourage them to divide and produce new cells. After a few weeks, the number of cartilage cells will have increased by 50 times. The new cartilage cells are used to replace the damaged cartilage.

The second stage involves placing these cells on a collagen patch, which is then sutured/glued onto the damaged area usually through a small incision.

After studying ACI, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has decided there is not enough evidence about the procedure’s long-term effects or safety. Therefore ACI is not available on the NHS unless as part of a clinical trial (a type of research that tests one treatment against another).

However, a number of private clinics may offer ACI. The cost of treatment can be expensive depending on the complexity of the operation. In some cases you may have to pay in the region of £20,000.

Artificial scaffold

A new technique used to treat cartilage damage is known as an artificial scaffold. This involves implanting a frame (the artificial scaffold), made up of a combination of collagen and proteins, into a damaged joint.

The frame stimulates growth of new cartilage cells and over time is gradually absorbed into the new cartilage tissue until only cartilage remains.

This technique is not currently widely available on the NHS.  

Ongoing research

A number of ongoing research projects are currently investigating more efficient and effective ways of repairing cartilage. Examples of current research projects include:

  • creating hybrid cartilage by combining human cells with synthetic fibres
  • investigating ways of using stem cells to generate new cartilage

Although these projects are still in their early stages, researchers are optimistic they will lead to new kinds of treatment.

Page last reviewed: 06/06/2012

Next review due: 06/06/2014

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The 2 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Old Woman said on 29 December 2013

Help, I have no cartilage in my left knee, tried a brace and it was no good. Arthroscopy lasted 3 months. Had steroid injection that lasted one month. Physio made the pain even worse. Pain is excruciating and I have a high pain threshold. Pain is so bad it wakes me up at night. I am now in a wheelchair. Can't take anti inflammatories because of existing medication. Was offered the lubricant injections but that offer was snatched away within minutes because of my meds. The only real solution is a replacement that I can't have because of a recent heart attack. I am between the devil and the deep blue sea and I am now getting very depressed because of the pain and lack of independence. I was already disabled due to other issues and use a frame but that did not stop me being as active as possible and having a life. Any ideas on how I can alleviate the pain and start living again?

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netnis said on 03 February 2013

I heard stem cell research is very active. I've been told in some countries they are already being made fully available as one of the treatment options. What is the current status in England? What do one need to do to take advantage of this latest treatment? My knees are getting worse. It's not too bad but I'd love to have a chance to run and jump once again before I turn 50.

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