The knee-d to know

Dr. Karen Hambly has devoted her career to helping athletes with serious injuries. During the last Motion for Life symposium of 2016, she discussed her work and the progress being made in one corner of orthopaedics.

She’s currently a senior lecturer at the University of Kent’s School of Sport and Exercise Sciences. She spent much of her earlier career working with medicine programmes for Olympic and Paralympic athletes in addition to serving as a sports medicine manager for British Cycling. Much of her current research focuses on articular cartilage repair and developing ways to reduce the recuperation time needed by individuals recovering from knee injuries.

Whether they’re a Premier League superstar or a young Olympic gymnast, a knee injury can be devastating. One of the biggest roadblocks therapists face is the human body itself. The maturation of cartilage can take months if not longer.

“From a rehabilitation point of view it can take as long as three years,” Dr. Hambly said.

Reaching the point where putting a moderate amount of weight on a recovering knee can take six to eight weeks, which is significantly shorter than the 6 – 12 weeks a patient would have faced in the late 1990s. This progress is due to new technology and methods that include the extraction of bone marrow aspirate concentrate. This regenerative fluid contains stem cells that can help with the healing of bones and joints. Anti-gravity treadmills have also greatly helped many recovering athletes improve their confidence and psychological well-being. These devices, which emerged in the mid ’00s, artificially alter a user’s body weight, enabling them to walk and even run on a bum knee. But despite these advances, not all athletes return to their careers after undergoing rehabilitation.

“The goal is to get a person back to an optimal level of function in the shortest possible time,” Dr. Hambly said. “But ‘optimal level’ doesn’t always mean that they’ll return to the same level. They also run the risk of future injury or further regenerative problems.”

Because of the long recovery times, many athletes drop out of the sporting world entirely after rehabilitation. Many fear hurting themselves a second time and starting all over again. However, given steady improvements in orthopaedics, there may come a time when an injured knee is considered a brief setback instead of a life-changing dilemma.

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