Osteoarthritis is the most common type of joint disease. It affects more than thirty million individuals in the U.S. alone. Experts estimate that osteoarthritis as a diseases in our healthcare system, costs us more than $186 billion a year in medical care, drugs, and lost wages. That’s nearly $2 trillion a decade in just the U.S.!
Instead of something that causes aches and pains, think of osteoarthritis as a disease process. However, unlike other diseases that affect organs and body chemistry, osteoarthritis is centered on the aging of a joint. This aging happens through the degeneration or wearing away of the hyaline cartilage, the padding between where the ends of bones meet together.
Hyaline cartilage is located inside what are known as synovial joints; these types of joints are located in the hip, knee, shoulder, elbow, thumb, wrist, and spine. This article and its inventive solution focus on the knee joint, though this would be applicable to any type of weight-being joint, such as the spine, ankle or hip joints.
This image is a frontal view of a normal, healthy knee. The kneecap has been removed for purposes of illustration. Here, you will see a large upper leg bone (femur) and a lower leg bone (tibia). Click the image to enlarge.
On closer inspection of the space in between these bone ends, you will also see articular cartilage, that is, a thin grey-colored cartilage pad that is seemingly glued to the bottom surface of the top bone. There is another instance of articular cartilage, where another pad is glued to the top of the bottom bone as well.
In between the respective upper and lower cartilage pads, there exists a small space filled with fluid that has the look and consistency of egg whites. This is known as synovial joint cavity. This enclosed system of cartilage pads and synovial fluid is what allows our joints to glide so easily.
While the design is certainly intelligent, once there is any type of known or even unknown damage, everything starts to go downhill. In fact, there are two major reasons why weight-bearing joints like the knee, spine and hips will develop osteoarthritis – namely, old age and injury.
As an individual becomes older, they simple lose synovial fluid. Why do they lose it? No one knows for sure. But when it does happen, the cartilage pads begin to start rubbing against each another. Because there is little to no synovial fluid lubrication, the cartilage pads start to fray – much like a square of packing foam flecking off into little pieces when you rub it quickly.
As the rubbing cartilage wears down over time, these torn pieces, as well as pads touching, cause inflammation to start in the joint. Think of it like a perpetually sprained ankle or a jammed finger, except that it’s silent and painless for years. This inflammation eventually leads to the formation of bone spurs, tiny, pointed growths of bone coming off the joint bones. The bone spurs can eventually start cutting into tendons and nearby soft tissue, causing more inflammation and substantial pain. Note the normal vs. osteoarthritic knee x-ray to the left.
The second way one develops osteoarthritis is when they have had a prior injury, especially if it occurred many years ago. So when a joint becomes injured, the damage to cartilage, tendons, bones, and other joint tissues never heals to the way it was originally made. Although the pain from the injury may leave in a matter of days or weeks, this imperfect healing sets up long-term, mild misalignment and joint function, which in turn leads to slow development of osteoarthritis.
For example, let’s take an eleven-year-old gymnast. She does her dismount off of the balance beam, lands slightly awkward, and twists her left knee. When she goes to the emergency room, it is discovered that she has developed a moderate level tear in her medial meniscus. This is a piece of fibrous cartilage that helps reduce friction between the two lower leg bones meeting at the knee.
The young girl gets the appropriate orthopedic surgery, has top-notch therapy, and is back turning handsprings and competing without pain in the next five months. She feels no pain and her left knee is fully functional. All seems well to her, the parents and the coaches.
Now fast forward through this young girl to adulthood at the age of thirty-four. When going down some stairs quickly, she feels a sharp twinge in her left knee. Surprise! It’s the same left knee she once damaged, now returning as a slowly-developed chronic knee problem. This is common pattern with many weight-bearing joints, including the hip, spine, and ankle.
In fact, other than the pain itself, the hard part about degenerative arthritis is that, in my cases, the loss of synovial fluid and damage to the cartilage has no pain or symptoms. The person typically feels fine and has no idea that this process is going on.
MY IDEA TO HELP DAMAGED JOINTS AROUND THE WORLD
Because the synovial fluid acts as a liquefied buffer keeping the cartilage separated, allowing for proper joint movement, this invention seeks to replicate that purpose in an entirely different manner. This invention will allow the damaged synovial joint, not to wither down to bone-on-bone, but rather to be afforded the benefit of halting the disease and its limitations altogether.
My idea is to invent a surgically implantable set of magnets or magnetic strips within or proximal to the cartilage tissue. Since magnets can both attract and repel, depending on the way their like or unlike ‘poles’ face each other, the invention would have at least two magnets where similar poles faced each other. An example of the invention would be the former discussion of the knee joint, where for example, one magnet would be implanted in the top cartilage layer with its positive pole face down, and another magnet would be implanted in the bottom cartilage layer with its positive pole facing up.
The opposing negative magnetic fields would repel one another so that the knee joint (or whatever joint is applicable to the implant) would be afforded a natural magnetic buffer. Ever try to push two magnets together that have the same polarity? So hopefully you get the picture here. Such magnets and strength of magnetic fields would be gauged based upon weight of individual, joint type, location and current condition of the target body joint.
The magnets would have to be made or buffered by covering material that the body would not reject. Additionally, the magnets may have to be anchored down to the bone outside, below, or above the cartilage, depending on the joint and location. Though the idea is in its infancy, it sure beats years of pain pills and joint replacement surgery.