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New technique helps alleviate arthritis pain

April 20, 2009 8:12:50 AM PDT
Sip your morning coffee. Button your shirt. Check your e-mail. Imagine doing those everyday things without using your thumbs. That's what many Americans with arthritis experience. Now, surgeons are using a new technique to help patients regain their mobility. Like many, Gregg Frederick, 57, took his hands for granted until osteoarthritis made it impossible to pinch his fingers together.

"You just don't realize. A simple thing like buttoning a shirt. It's very hard to do some of those things, especially your sleeves, with one hand," Frederick said. Osteoarthritis of the thumb is one of the most common forms of arthritis. Over a lifetime, the small joint on the bottom of the hand becomes stressed from pinching and grasping.

"The forces that this joint sees can be 20 to 40 pounds per square inch," Dr. A. Lee Osterman said.

When cartilage wears out, bone rubs against bone, causing sharp pain. In severe cases, surgeons previously had to fuse or even remove one bone, which limited hand mobility.

Now, doctors are using a new technique to stabilize the joint and eliminate pain. Surgeons insert a small spacer between the bones made from a polymer called artelon. It looks and feels like a tiny lawn chair.

"Then, what happens is cells grow down here. They replace things, but this provides a matrix, or template, into which the cells grow," Osterman said.

Over time, the artelon dissolves, leaving behind the patient's own tissue to cushion the joint.

Most patients regain full strength within a year. Gregg is now pain-free as he buttons, grasps, and flips, over and over, through his workday.

Dr. Osterman says the ideal patient for this procedure is in the early stages of osteoarthritis and has not responded to conservative treatments like wearing a splint or taking anti-inflammatory medication. He says patients usually remain pain-free for at least 10 years.


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