First things first: No, the holes in your cartilage don’t have to heal for your knees to feel better. This is absolutely not a prerequisite. There are many people walking about with cartilage defects and no knee pain. That’s not a bad club to be part of. After all, you just want to be rid of knee pain, right? Who cares if your cartilage is as smooth as a baby’s bum?
Second thing: I am occasionally asked if I have a follow-up MRI in my possession to prove that my cartilage did, indeed, heal. See my post here about why, no, I haven’t done this and why I don’t think it matters much anyway.
Another reason it doesn’t matter much: there appears to be much stronger evidence out there than a single MRI from yours truly. That takes us back to the original point: Why do I think cartilage can heal?
Take a good hard look at the table below. I copied it from a study, “Factors Affecting Progression of Knee Cartilage Defects in Normal Subjects Over Two Years.” The 86 people who participated had MRIs done of their knees at the start of the study, then two years later. (Yes, these were “healthy subjects,” but I’ve seen another study that includes knee pain sufferers that came to similar conclusions.)
The condition of each subject’s cartilage was graded for five different knee compartments. The scoring again goes like this:
Grade 0 = normal
Grade 1 = focal blistering
Grade 2 = irregular surface and loss of thickness of less than 50%
Grade 3 = deep ulceration with loss of thickness of more than 50%
Grade 4 = full-thickness wear of cartilage with bone exposed
But what actually happens? Yes, three of them stay at Grade 3, and five worsen to Grade 4. Yet four improve to Grade 2, and two of them – one in seven – improve all the way to Grade 1.
Yes, the sample sizes are small. Still, the pattern is repeated elsewhere (the extremes, at Grade 4 and Grade 0, suffer from the floor and ceiling effect, of course). Look at the 88 defects that started out as Grade 2. A full 31 percent of them, or almost a third, improve to Grade 1.
Yes, there are valid questions to raise. What is the nature of this new cartilage? Is it weaker fibrocartilage (actually, another researcher has found that though new cartilage starts out that way, over time it begins looking more like regular hyaline). Also, could there be misreading of results? (My take: yes, probably some, but I doubt on this extensive a scale.)
To me, this constitutes very interesting, and compelling, evidence that cartilage changes are a two-way street. Cartilage doesn’t just get worse. It’s always getting worse and getting better. And if it can get better, then why not try to enhance that ability? (Note: this was a “natural” study, meaning that some subjects saw positive changes in the tissue, and they weren't even on a special regimen!)