By Dr. Mallika Marshall

BOSTON (CBS) — Americans of all ages suffer from chronic knee pain due to meniscus injuries.  Most are too young to have replacement surgery, but there aren’t a lot of other options.

“I couldn’t get up the hill,” says 44-year old Jim DiRico of Derry, New Hampshire.  “I had to stand and watch my two children climb a little bit of a hill that we have.  Being a dad I wanted to be involved.”

But Jim couldn’t be involved because of severe pain in his right knee from a worn meniscus.  The meniscus is the shock-absorbing rubbery cushion in the knee which sits between the thigh bone and the shin bone.

Meniscus implant made of a special medical grade plastic. (WBZ-TV)

Meniscus implant made of a special medical grade plastic. (WBZ-TV)

“It felt like someone was putting a knife in the meniscus,” says Jim.

Dr. Brian McKeon sees patients like Jim every day.  He’s a sports medicine specialist at the New England Baptist Hospital and the team doctor for the Boston Celtics who says when the meniscus wears away doctors don’t have a lot to offer short of knee replacement surgery.  But that doesn’t last forever so many patients are asked to hold off until they’re older.

“We used to say get to 50 and crawl in here at 50 and we’ll do the replacement,” says Dr. McKeon, “And people are literally like my birthday is coming.  And now that number should be 60 to 65 because people, women, in particular, are living forever.”

To buy time, surgeons have tried to replace the damaged meniscus with cow skin, pig skin, and metal, but all have failed.

X-ray of meniscus (WBZ-TV)

X-ray of meniscus (WBZ-TV)

Dr. McKeon is one of about nine surgeons testing a new meniscus implant made of a special medical grade plastic.  Studies in Europe have been promising.

“We put this implant in which is relatively stable and the patient gets up and puts full weight on it right away,” says Dr. McKeon.  “And if it doesn’t work, I don’t burn bridges.  I can take it out,” he adds.

Ten weeks ago, Jim became Dr. McKeon’s first patient and the fourth in the nation to receive the new implant.

Dr. McKeon is pleased with Jim’s progress.  “He’s above and beyond what I’d ever expect at this point,” says Dr. McKeon.  “When you have a surgery that has tremendous benefit but very little down downside, that’s a home run for us.”

Jim says he still has a ways to go, but is now able to climb, not just stairs but that very important hill in his backyard.

“My daughter saw me up on top of the hill and said, ‘Hey, Dad, your knee is all better,’ and it felt so great at that moment,” says Jim.

Patients between the ages of 30 and 75 are still being enrolled in the clinical trial.

If you’re interested in finding out if you’re eligible, go to meniscus-trial.com.

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