Age, not pain or swelling, is the main determining factor when it comes to getting a knee replacement. Doctors say because the artificial joints wear out in about 10-to-15 years, they have to be replaced.
Thus, getting one too young can lead to a more difficult operation later in life. Now there's a new procedure that can provide significant relief without surgery.
Recently, 48-year-old Laura Hall was at her absolute, physically-fit best. She had trained for and completed half marathons. Just five years earlier she weighed 300 pounds.
"At 300 pounds it was hard to get around," said Hall. "I absolutely had a negative self image. I tried to cover myself up as much as possible."
After Weight Watchers and plenty of determination on a treadmill, Hall shed nearly half her body weight. Suddenly she started experiencing excruciating pain in her knees.
"It was bone on bone," she said. "I couldn't even walk."
No longer able to run, Hall started to see the pounds resurface. After working so hard to shed her unwanted weight, she couldn't bear the thought of gaining it all back.
"I came to Dr. Welsh in tears," Hall said. "I stood in this very room and cried to him. I said, 'I've got to do something.'"
Scott Welsh, M.D., a surgeon with Central Texas Orthopedics, says many might assume knee replacement would be the best medical option for Hall. However, Welsh says she and others in their 40s, 50s, even 60s may be too young for that procedure.
"Knee replacements typically last 10-to-15 years on average," said Welsh. "If you're somebody in your 40-50s that has to have a knee replacement, and that's your only option, then you're having a big revision surgery in your 60s or 70s when your health may be starting to fail."
So what to do? Welsh a recommended a far less invasive procedure called stem cell knee injection. Welsh takes stem cells from the patient's own body that are generally found in the pelvis. Those stem cells are removed with a syringe and placed into a centrifuge where they're spun and mixed together for 15 minutes. Welsh then injects the stem cells into the knee.
"There was absolutely no pain involved in taking the stem cells out of my hip and putting them into my knee," Hall said.
"The benefit is we can postpone that knee replacement surgery, hopefully for many years if we can truly regenerate cartilage," Welsh said.
"I know that it's working because I'm already exercising," Hall said. "I am so excited about feeling healthy again."
The FDA-approved procedure takes only a couple of hours and patients go home the same day. Most are cleared to resume their normal exercise regimen in a week or two -- a stark contrast to the lengthy recovery knee replacement surgery requires.