I recently had knee surgery to remove a half-dozen pieces of cartilage, each about the size of a Tic-Tac mint. I never really injured my knee, but when I was younger (56 now) I took thousands of bouldering falls, all grounders because we didn’t have pads back then. I also have logged untold miles uphill and downhill in talus and scree. My knee began hurting slightly about five years ago, then in the past two years it felt as if I had gravel in my knee and I got to where I could barely walk a block. An X-ray revealed what the doctor referred to as “loose bodies.” Thus, the fix. After the body work, the surgeon said there was joint degeneration and that my knee, although it should feel better, was not going to be perfect. Where to from here, and what can younger climbers do to avoid damaging their knees?
—Duane Raleigh, Redstone, CO
The term “loose bodies” has a wide variety of uses, but from a medical perspective it is bits of matter that maraud around the inside of your joints causing all sorts of mischief. Joint debris will affect most people at some point, either by way of acute injury (joint surface fractures or cartilage tears), or joint degeneration associated with various types of arthritic change.
Yours is probably the more crusty-old-man version. You know, the one where your body, now past halfway, is entering controlled free-fall. I know, it’s disappointing. In not too long your toenails will resemble something from “Lord of the Rings,” things that were once tighter than an otter’s pocket will begin to leak, and your joints will burn like a vindaloo enema. But apparently you’ll be wiser, so it’s all good.
Those bits-n-bobs removed from your knee were likely once part of your meniscal cartilage (the two discs that help stabilize and absorb shock within the knee). Removing that shizzle is a good thing, as they will wreak havoc on the joint surfaces—imagine chewing a mouth full of glass—and quicken an already declining situation.
Though it’s early days, you are tracking toward a knee replacement. Your arrival is dependent on many factors, not least of all the amount of current degeneration in the joint and how you manage it from here.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice 241