Can Your Knees Be Saved?

The harder the exercise, the faster knees wear out. But put down that ice pack. These innovative treatments can ease injury and arthritis pain ASAP.

By Liz Neporent
knee pain x-ray picture
Photograph: Sebastian Kaulitzki

LAST year Leslie Magno tore the meniscus cartilage in her left knee while dancing in a Zumba class near her Roy, Washington, home. Already damaged a bit by osteoarthritis, her knee began throbbing, and at times she could barely hobble around. “My doctor told me I’d need arthroscopic surgery. But I wasn’t crazy about the idea and did research on alternatives,” Magno says.

And she found them. Magno preserved her knee by opting for a -platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and stem cell procedure, in which a surgeon injects a joint with a patient’s own healing cells. PRP has generated a lot of buzz in sports medicine circles and has been used by some major athletes: In 2008, Tiger Woods underwent a PRP procedure to speed up healing in a knee ligament; in 2009, a few weeks before playing in the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh Steeler Hines Ward, winner of last season’s Dancing with the Stars, had a PRP injection to boost his recovery from a sprained knee ligament. Magno is happy about her choice. “I started to feel improvement after about a week,” she recalls. “Now, a few months later, I’m back to around 95 percent of where I was several years ago.”

Magno was fortunate to find a procedure that gave her so much relief. Knee pain afflicts one in four women daily, according to the third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey; one reason the number is so high is that osteoarthritis of the knee—the wearing down of its cartilage—is much more common in women than in men. Women who play sports that involve jumping and pivoting are at especially high risk: University of Michigan researchers found that these women are up to eight times as likely to injure the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)—one of the four major ligaments in the knee—as men who play the same sports.

Why are women more susceptible to knee trouble? “Women’s hips are wider, which places greater pressure on the inside of the knee,” answers Christopher J. Centeno, MD, founder of the Centeno-Schultz Clinic in Broomfield, Colorado. Also, estrogen may make women’s joints looser, and hence less stable, which leads to more wear and tear on the knee. Walking around in high heels is another factor: They usually tilt you forward, which places pressure on the underside of the kneecap, a common site of osteoarthritis. No wonder, then, that women undergo six out of 10 total-knee-replacement operations, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

If you have stiff or achy knees, there are a lot of traditional treatments you can try, such as icing, physical therapy and NSAIDs like ibuprofen. But if those don’t work and you’d like to avoid major surgery, check out these newer, less invasive procedures, which are designed to help extend the life of your knees.

First Published August 22, 2011

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