The radio ad seeking participants for an innovative new surgery seemed like fate.
Debra Tongue, 46, of Baton Rouge, was suffering knee pain after an operation on torn cartilage last year, stopping her in her previously active tracks.
“The pain was not going away, and it wasn’t lessening,” she said. “I knew that this is just what I have to live with.”
But then her husband left the radio on, and the former personal trainer heard an ad for a possible solution to her discomfort.
Doctors at Baton Rouge Orthopaedic Clinic were part of a surgical trial to test a new meniscus implant created for people like her — those who lived with pain after a common surgery for a torn meniscus.
Earlier this month, Tongue became the first patient in Louisiana and the southern U.S. to receive the meniscus replacement, a plastic implant that attempts to replicate the natural meniscus, a soft rubbery cushion between the thigh bone and the lower leg.
In most cases, after the meniscus is torn, doctors remove the torn pieces of the cartilage.
“The idea is to remove the unstable portions to keep it from continuing to tear and to keep it from continuing to irritate the joint,” said Dr. Larry “Chip” Bankston, one of the orthopedic surgeons involved in the trial.
Meniscus debridement, as the procedure is called, is like cutting a hangnail so it doesn’t irritate your finger, Bankston explained.
“The idea is that you cut the hangnail back at the base, that way it no longer rips back, and it takes away some of the pain,” he said.
It’s the most common arthroscopic surgery in the country, with 650,000 performed each year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
Last summer, Tongue was in the middle of her regular run when she tore her meniscus.
“I knew that it was injured because I heard a pop, and there was a sudden pain and my knee was very unstable,” she said.
Tongue has always been active. In her 20s, she worked as a personal trainer, then stopped to open a business. Before injuring her knee, she was studying to re-certify as a trainer.
Since the initial surgery, Tongue couldn’t run or bike without pain. She could walk short distances and worked out her upper body at the gym, but she wanted to resume running five days a week and lifting weights.
“It’s just who I am, really,” she said. “I am just one of these people who has always been very active, and it’s just part of my lifestyle and part of who I am.”
The pain Tongue experienced after her original surgery was because too little of the meniscus remained to absorb the regular shocks of exercise.
“That side of the joint has too much stress,” Bankston said.
It eventually leads to arthritis, and many patients eventually have knee-replacement surgery. But Tongue was too young for a knee replacement; she would wear out the new artificial joint.
Bankston and another doctor from the clinic, Dr. Robert Easton, became interested in the new implant after European doctors saw promising results.
“The problem is there just aren’t a lot of good options for these patients right now,” Bankston said. “It is a tough spot for patients when you have this surgery, and you still have this pain.”
This new surgery is exciting because it does not damage the remaining knee cartilage, Easton said.
“We’re not really burning a bridge by doing this,” he said.
The implant Tongue received, called the NUSurface by manufacturer Active Implants, has been used in Europe, but clinical trials have just begun in the United States and will run through 2017, according to the National Institutes of Health, before the procedure could be approved for wide use. Doctors expect 118 Americans to be involved in the trial, according to the NIH.
After the surgery, which Tongue had on June 3, she began six weeks of physical therapy and home exercises three times a day. After a week of rehabilitation, she is feeling good, but the “recovery is more difficult” than her last knee surgery.
In September, she will travel with friends to India for a two-week retreat that includes time in the Himalayas, the world’s tallest mountains. If all goes well with her recovery, she hopes to make it an active trip.
“To be able to do some hiking in Himalayas without pain is what I’m looking forward to,” she said.