New twist on ankle surgery

September 14, 2011 2:41:15 PM PDT
Better watch your step. Every day in the U-S, there are 25-thousand ankle sprains. Sprains happen when the ligaments in the ankle stretch or twist outside of their normal position.

Usually, the pain only lasts a few days, but an ankle sprain can also lead to more chronic problems so painful that even surgery may not help. Now, a new kind of graft is helping these patients when nothing else works.

Sergeant First Class Chris Withers has the intensity that comes with a career in army special operations. But, he had to trade his boots after suffering an ankle injury in Iraq.

"I fell into a sinkhole, and it felt like an ankle sprain. It snapped, and I knew then it was hurting," Sgt. First Class Chris Withers U.S. Army said.

Eight surgeries over seven-plus years didn't help his pain or the problem -- a painful, penny-sized pothole in his left ankle joint.

"Typically, this is related to trauma, so if your ankle sprains or you twist it, two bones impact each other, and a little piece of bone and cartilage gets displaced," Selene Parekh, MD Orthopedic Surgeon Duke University, said.

"24-7, I was in pain. Even while I was asleep, I was waking up in pain," Withers said.

The turning point came from duke orthopedic surgeon Dr. Selene Parekh and new technology-- a graft made from juvenile cadaver tissue, surgically placed to fill the hole.

"It's little pieces of cartilage, and we pick them up with tweezers, and we just place them into the base of the pothole, and we use human glue, and we glue that into the pothole," Parekh said.

Seven months after the allograft procedure, the cartilage became solid. The pothole is repaired.

"I didn't feel the pain anymore," Withers said.

Now, Chris is on a mission -- working hard, so he'll be ready to go back to work wherever the army needs him.

"As soon as I'm healed up, I'm gone, deployed? somewhere," Withers said.

Although it's too soon to know, doctors hope the new allograft will be a permanent fix for patients suffering from serious ankle lesions to help them avoid big surgeries like ankle replacement.