Diagnosing a knee cartilage damage based on physical examination and medical history alone can be a challenge. This is because the symptoms overlap with that of other knee injuries, such as a meniscus or ligament damage.
Therefore, your doctor may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to properly visualise the articular cartilage and rule out other causes of your symptoms. MRI produces detailed images of the body part being examined using radio waves and a magnetic field, and is able to differentiate between water, muscle, fat and other soft tissue.
Advanced cartilage damage can indirectly be diagnosed by X-ray (reduced joint spaces).
How is knee cartilage damage treated?
If your symptoms are mild and you can still move the joint, you can do the following:
Rest and avoid activities that cause pain for the first few days.
Use a support device such as crutches or knee brace to avoid further injury in the affected knee, then slowly get back to light activity over the next few days and weeks.
Apply a towel-wrapped ice pack to the affected knee for 15 – 20 minutes every 2 – 3 hours for a few days
Wrap the injured knee with an elastic bandage, then keep the knee raised or supported on a pillow to reduce any swelling
In some cases, your doctor may recommend a combination of special exercises and NSAIDs for pain. These exercises may include supervised physical therapy and/or a program that you can follow at home.
Finally, a surgery may be required if you have a severely painful knee. Your surgical treatment options include:
Arthroscopy. During this procedure, your surgeon cuts 2 or more small openings in the knee and inserts a narrow tube with a fibre-optic video camera attached to the tip to get a close-up view of the damage and repair it at the same time.
Cartilage grafting. This procedure involves the repair of the damaged cartilage by using a piece of healthy cartilage obtained from another area of the body.
Total or partial knee replacements. During this procedure, your surgeon removes part of or the entire damaged knee joint and replaces it with metal and plastic implant components.
Pain in the joints from cartilage damage can be severely debilitating. Dr Chin Pak Lin, orthopaedic surgeon at Gleneagles Hospital, discusses early identification and treatment options for damaged cartilage.