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Injection may help osteoarthritis sufferers

February 10, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
About 27 million Americans suffer from osteoarthritis, a condition that causes fluid in the joints to thin out, which can be very painful.

Surgery is invasive and recovery time is long. But a simple injection may help provide a lot of relief.

Ion Hartunian used to train for triathlons, now he's just happy to go for a leisurely ride. He has osteoarthritis in both hips. Even simple activities like working at his computer were out of the question.

"I couldn't sit at the computer and work for longer than 20-30 minutes without having to get on the floor and stretch," said Hartunian.

The pain was so bad doctors scheduled him for surgery. But he canceled the procedure after trying an injection called Synvisc, which is made from the comb of a rooster.

"The proteins that are contained within that are similar to the proteins contained in normal joint fluid," said Dr. Joseph Robinson, a musculoskeletal radiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

In a 15-minute procedure, doctors take x-rays of the patient, infusing a dye to show them that the needle is in the arthritic joint. Then, they inject the gel directly in that spot. It cushions and lubricates the area, just like real cartilage.

"You can think of it kind of like motor oil for your joints," said Robinson.

It's typically injected every six months and is currently being used for knees and hips, but can potentially be placed in any joint.

A recent study showed 75 percent of patients were able to delay knee replacement surgery after having the treatment. Doctors say that's a big benefit for younger patients.

"Just like a car will wear out within a given number of years, implants have a lifespan," said Robinson.

At 50 years old, the injection was a welcome option for Hartunian.

"It just got me back to a normal lifestyle," he said.

Now, he can sit and work for hours at a time or ride around town.

"Quitting is not an option for me. I want to be as active as possible and keep doing everything that I want to do," said Hartunian.

And he can, without pain slowing him down.

There is a small risk of injecting the gel in the wrong spot, which can cause pain and inflammation, but Robinson says that is extremely rare.

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