Breakthrough implant stops big toe arthritis pain

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Dena Byars' big toe had become a big pain.

"I got to the point where I was wearing not only flat shoes, but I couldn't wear any enclosed shoe at all," Byars says.

The 59-year-old high school chemistry teacher from Troy, Alabama diagnosed was with osteoarthritis in her big toe and says she spent 20 years in pain.

By early 2018, she was living in flip flops.

And it wasn't just that.

"I couldn't walk up the stairs because I couldn't flex the joint," Byars says. "It would be bone grinding against bone. And it didn't just hurt then. I would wake up at night in pain if I had walked a lot that day."

Byars was told she needed fusion surgery.

That would stop the pain but would leave her unable to flex her big toe.

So, in the spring of 2018, she went online to look for a better option.

"I just Googled it, and when I found it, I drove up to Atlanta," Byars says. "I'm in southeast Alabama."

Byars found Dr. John Gleason of Resurgens Orthopaedics in Sandy Springs.

Gleason is using a synthetic cartilage implant known as Cartiva, developed at Georgia Tech and manufactured in Alpharetta.

The doctor says Cartiva is made of a polymer that acts a lot like the natural cartilage Dena Byars has lost to wear and tear over the years.

The joint surgery takes about 35 minutes, he says, and it is performed as an outpatient procedure under general anesthesia.

"So, we drill a hole in the end of the bone and place this material in there in place of the cartilage," Gleason says. "It's usually only on one side. So, it acts like a buffer or cushion between the two bones."

The implant, approved by the FDA more than two years ago, has been studied for six years in other countries.

Dr. Gleason says the data has been positive.

"Those studies they've done, the six-year studies, show pretty remarkable success," he says.  "A greater than 95 percent success rate. The failure rate is typically easy to resolve, in that the patient can go back and have a fusion done."

Resurgens is performing about 12 to 15 surgeries a month using Cartiva, which, Gleason says, holds up better than previous implants they've used in the big toe.

Byars had her surgery on June 14, 2018.

"It's the best day's work I've ever done," she says. "I can walk up stairs now. My office is on the third floor. And I get so excited because I can do that. I can do Pilates. I can go hiking. Just huge life change, just from a toe."

No more flip flops for this teacher.

"(I like) just being able to buy normal shoes," Byars says.  "But on top of that, I can buy cute ones now, too!"