Repairing torn ligaments have posed a significant challenge for physicians in the past. Previous repairs, including grafting tissue, or placing artificial prostheses to replace ligaments, were relatively unsuccessful. Often patients would have to undergo multiple surgeries to maintain a repair, or would have to have prostheses replaced.
Some of the torn ligaments most difficult to repair are those around the knees. Torn ligaments in the knees can seriously impair walking and may as well, end a successful career for professional athletes. Knee replacement is often the preferred method of repair, and though the technology has improved, it still does not provide the benefits of healthy ligament tissue surrounding the knee.
Another common type of repair for torn ligaments uses a graft from the patient’s body or a cadaver, called an allograph, which is then connected to the tear site. In some cases, minor tears may not be surgically addressed. What we commonly call sprains and strains are usually the result of stretched or torn ligaments or tendons.
Frequently, a minor tear is addressed by resting torn ligaments, using icepacks to reduce swelling, and elevating the area where torn ligaments are present. If rest, elevation and icing do not produce a total cure, then surgery may be considered to repair significant tearing.
Recent studies into stem cell technology are a promising alternative. Certain stem cells, called tenocytes, when injected near the source of an injury, may actually begin to rebuild the tissues that form both tendons and ligaments. Studies in rat populations showed that such injected cells would migrate to the area of torn ligaments and begin to actively work on rebuilding the area.
Studies on this new technology, published in 2006, suggest a completely non-invasive way to repair torn ligaments that has a far greater chance of total recovery of function to affected areas. As well, injection of stem cells poses less risk to the body than traditional surgery. Injection of stem cells does not require anesthetics and may ultimately replace surgical techniques for repair.
As promising as this research is, stem cell technology is still in its infancy, and it may be quite some time before stem cells would be routinely used to repair torn ligaments. In 2006, scientists may also have found a way to address some of the ethical issues surrounding stem cell production by being able to extract a single cell from an embryo without harming the embryo. Finding new ways to harvest stem cells may eliminate issues regarding stem cell ethics, and may point the way toward curing torn ligaments, as well as many other diseases and conditions.