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Knee Potion: Like An Oil Change For Your Joints

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – You may have heard about the injections pro athletes are getting in sore knees. Even the Twins’ Joe Mauer. But we found that it’s actually a popular procedure for a wide range of patients, some very active, and some just looking for a little relief. And the secret to this magic potion is found in roosters.

It’s hyaluronic acid, a natural fluid that’s found in rooster combs, and marketed under a number of names, including Synvisc and Supartz. It’s part of a procedure that’s called viscosupplementation.

A viscous fluid is injected into an arthritic knee, adding extra lubricant to the joint fluid.

“What viscosupplementation is designed to do,” said Dr. Kirk Aadalen of TRIA Orthopaedic Center, “is to try to bring back the more normal characteristics of that joint fluid.”

It works wonders for Bonnie Harris of St. Paul, a very active 49-year-old, who has been known to get a shot one day, and do Pilates the next.

“Before the first shot,” she said, “I was literally almost dragging my leg around walking. It’s been magical for me.”

Sixty-three-year-old Sue Wiener of Minnetonka just finished her first five-shot series, and her relief is coming slowly. Still, she’s now able to picture a walking trip in Italy next year, and stairs don’t hurt quite so much.

“Stairs were about a nine,” she said, describing her level of pain on a scale of one to 10. “Now I’d say they’re about a five. A five or six.”

The procedure can even help patients who are too old, or frail, for knee replacement surgery. You can do it every six months, like an oil change, but it also has anti-inflammatory properties.

“I’ve got a couple I think in their 90s that come in every once in a while,” said Dr. Aadalen.

It has been used on pro athletes for about a decade, most notably pitcher Randy Johnson. And Joe Mauer made headlines this winter when the Twins revealed his injections. But Harris compares herself to a different celebrity.

“We describe it like we’re the Tin Man (from the Wizard of Oz),” she said.  “We go in and he puts some oil in our joints and then we get to go play for the rest of the winter.”

Dr. Aadalen cautions that it only treats the symptoms of arthritis, and doesn’t grow new cartilage, but for people in pain, it really can feel like magic.

“I certainly don’t counsel patients that this is a fountain of youth,” he said. “But again, it is absolutely designed to decrease the symptoms related to arthritis and to make them more functional than they are with their pain.”

Dr. Aadalen says the next advance may be using hyaluronic acid during arthroscopic knee surgery. But if you have other joint pain, it’s not for you. They’ve tried it on shoulders and hips, and didn’t get the same results.

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