Olympic Swimmer Dara Torres undergoes cutting edge knee procedure

Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, who has won 12 medals in five Olympic games, including 3 silver medals at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, has recently undergone a cutting edge procedure on her knee to repair severe arthritis. The 43 year old was  the oldest swimmer on the US Olympic swim team, but has won at least one medal in each of the five Olympics in which she has competed, making her one of only a handful of Olympians to earn medals in five different Games. Torres is currently featured in the “Everything Possible” campaign by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston where she had the surgery performed. She explained that after the Beijing games, she had to undergo surgery on her shoulder. During her rehabilitation,  she focused her training on core and lower body strength.  As a result, the mild arthritis she had in her knees worsened dramatically.

According to Torres:

“When I realized how bad my knee injury was, the biggest thing I was scared about was that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my daughter and to possibly continue to swim. I didn’t know if I would have to have a total knee replacement at my age, which was only 43, and I didn’t know if I would be able to walk again or run after my daughter…I was basically limping.”

Torres underwent the procedure, called autologous chondrocyte implantation in the fall of 2009. She is pleased with the results: “I notice big differences. I’m not limping anymore and I have a lot more flexibility. I have had about three MRIs since then and they’ve shown the progression of cartilage cells growing on my kneecap, you could see a nice thick layer of cartilage growing.”

What is autologous chondrocyte implantation?

Autologous chrondrocyte implantation(ACI) is a procedure used to replace an area of knee cartilage that has been worn away. Cartilage  is an extremely hard, smooth substance designed to decrease the friction as movement occurs between  bones. In the procedure, a small piece of cartilage is removed from another, less weight bearing joint, and approximately 10,000 cartilage cells are isolated from the piece. These cells are then grown in a special laboratory where they multiply until there are about 50-60 million cells. A second procedure is then performed where the cartilage cells are injected into a special matrix material that has been placed where the cartilage was worn away. The cells  continue to grow into the bone and form a  new cartilage covering.  Since the cartilage cells come from the patient, rejection of the cells as foreign by the immune system is minimized. The recovery time is about one year during which the patient will slowly increase the amount of activity they can do with the knee. So far, results with this procedure have been promising, although longer term studies are still underway to see if the new cartilage will be as durable as natural cartilage.

For more information about autologous chondrocyte implantation, click here to go the Resounding Health Casebook on the topic.

Mark Boguski, M.D., Ph.D. is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and is a member of the Society for Participatory Medicine, "a movement in which networked patients shift from being mere passengers to responsible drivers of their health" and in which professional health care providers encourage "empowered patients" and value them as full partners in managing their health and wellness.

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