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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

McCallum: Knee Surgery

This fall’s been one of the warmest in years, with weeks of blue skies and bright sunshine inviting us to indulge in lots of hikes and leaf raking. But I had other plans. I was among the thousands of people in the U.S. who opted for an arthroscopic partial meniscectomy after one routine step up my stairs created a tear in the protective disc of cartilage between the femur and tibia, called the meniscus. It felt like being stuck in the knee with a pitchfork. After that, an ice pack became my best friend, as I shelved the hiking boots and tried to decide if I’d rather be seen in public with a cane – something I associate with 'old limping person' - or crutches – which to me suggest an 'active person who had an unfortunate but temporary setback.'

I also discovered that legions of people in my peer group love to talk about their knees. Everybody’s got ‘em and nearly everybody’s got pain - while most of us never would’ve thought we’d succumb to the same kind of body-part degeneration as our parents!

It’s been humbling to accept that my frame isn’t that different from that of an old car driven through too many Vermont winters – the crunch in my arthritic knees reminding me of the auto body rust that corrodes fenders and makes mufflers dangle.

Only time will tell if the procedure I chose for my afflicted knee will ease my pain and eliminate the cane.

Yes, I’ve ditched the crutches, but still need some support.

An interesting study in the New England Journal of Medicine compared outcomes for patients with meniscal tears that had been repaired with the arthroscopic surgical technique with others in the study who’d received sham, or placebo, surgery. After one year both groups reported similar improvement.

Furthermore, some experts suggest that this most commonly performed of all orthopedic procedures is perhaps being done when physical therapy might achieve the same results. A stunning 700,000 are performed annually in this country alone, costing billions of dollars that will only increase with the graying of America.

Any surgery is risky business and usually a last resort. But I wanted a quick fix for the discomfort that was reminding me of the human body’s inevitable breakdown, upending my life and curtailing lifelong physical activities. And because it’s pretty safe to assume that winter will get here eventually, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that the results will enable me to get back to working on the woodpile.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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