Doctors now performing meniscus transplants, a game changer

Knee injuries are said to be the number one injury among football players, and they are also an issue for a lot of people like Weekend Warriors.

But when it becomes repetitive, it can leave an athlete not only sidelined but out of the game for good.

A few years ago, 23-year-old Ricky Valadez couldn't run, stretch or walk without feeling intense pain.

And football was a big part of his life as he grew up. He even played in college, but the sport he was so passionate about had to come to an end after multiple knee injuries involving a torn meniscus.

Now, Valadez is back on his feet thanks to orthopedic surgeon Dr. Preston Wolin of Weiss Memorial Hospital. He underwent a rare meniscus transplant.

"It's extremely exciting and it opens up whole new vistas for people who have had these types of injuries,” Dr. Wolin said.

The meniscus is the C shaped cushion of cartilage in the knee joint. It acts as a shock absorber and is commonly injured. It’s what sidelined Derrick Rose with the Bulls and again with the Knicks.

For many older patients, a knee joint replacement is the best option. But for younger and active people, a transplant could be a better alternative, which is part of a growing trend of regenerative sports medicine.

A meniscal transplant replaces the damaged meniscus with donor cartilage from a cadaver. The surgeon makes a small 2 to 4 inch incision in the knee with a few other small holes and places the new meniscal tissue into the shinbone and sews it into place.

But the surgery isn't for everyone. The best candidates are active people younger than 55 who are missing more than half of a meniscus from previous surgery or an injury, or someone with a meniscus that cannot be repaired. Also, a person who has persistent activity related pain and no or minimal knee arthritis.

"The bottom line is if you're that patient you don't have to live with that knee the way it is,” Dr. Wolin said.

For Valadez, the surgery has been life changing. He currently plays flag football and is in three softball leagues.

"The best thing in the long run is I'm going to be able to have the opportunity to do whatever I want and not be held back,” Valadez said.

Meniscal transplants have improved over the past 10 years and are no longer considered experimental. The procedure does not cure the condition, but the transplant can allow patients to stay active for an estimated 17 years before they have to consider future options.