Regrow your ACL: Multi-sport athlete from Grand County receives first specialized implant procedure in Colorado
Whether it’s pole vaulting for the track team or competing on the girls wrestling team, Olivia Stefanik, 16, is a multi-sport competitor at West Grand High School willing to try new and challenging things.
Due to her athletic pursuits, Stefanik ended up trying something else new. She was the first Colorado patient, and reportedly the second patient in the Western United States, to undergo a BEAR implant procedure, or bridge-enhanced ACL restoration, to regrow a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.
The implant is a medical game changer that was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for commercial surgical use in December 2021, and Steamboat Springs orthopedic surgeon Dr. Alex Meininger was the first physician to perform the implant procedure in Colorado.
The surgeon with Steamboat Orthopaedic and Spine Institute had closely followed the development of the implant technology for a decade. About two weeks after FDA approval, he asked Stefanik if she wanted to choose the implant option, which must be utilized within 50 days of and ACL injury. Stefanik said she opted for the implant surgery in order to avoid having a graft taken from above her knee.
“It’s a revolutionary approach to ACL surgery to help prevent complications and heal your own ligament naturally,” said Meininger, an orthopedic surgeon for 11 years.
The bridge-enhanced restoration uses a specially developed protein sponge that is injected with the patient’s blood and placed surgically between the torn sections of the patient’s ACL.
During her first-ever wrestling meet that took place at Soroco High School in early December 2021, Stefanik was pulled in an awkward position by her wrestling opponent and felt instant pain.
“The moment that it happened, I knew something happened right then and there. It hurt really bad,” Stefanik said. “The North Fork girl had sort of a choke hold and was trying to swing me across her body. My foot was wrapped around her leg when she was pulling me over, so when my foot was stuck, her leg was bending my leg.”
Since Steamboat Springs is an active, athletic town, Meininger has now completed 10 of the BEAR Implant procedures, starting with Stefanik’s surgery in late December 2021. The surgeon has utilized the implant for patients from ages 12 to 44, ranging from local patients to out-of-town patients who tore an ACL while skiing in Steamboat.
The physician said ACL tears are most common in downhill skiing and contact football, followed by soccer and basketball injuries. Meininger said the downside to the implant surgery is the requirement for a gentler and longer recovery. The recovery time from the implant surgery until full activities is usually eight months — about two months longer than traditional ACL repair surgery, he said.
The positives of the implant include avoiding a graft harvest and achieving a more accurate reproduction of the normal ACL anatomy in terms of position, location and tension. The blood-infused sponge, which dissolves after two months in the body, acts as a framework or bridge for the body to heal the ligament. Similar regenerative medicine and sponge implant applications are being used in procedures for the heart, shoulders, nerves and blood vessels, Meininger noted.
For athletes and younger patients, medical studies show an 86% return to sports success with BEAR surgery compared to 70% with traditional ACL surgery. Meininger hopes the implant technique also will reduce the usual 20% risk of repeat ACL tears.
The Steamboat surgeon repairs about 100 ACL tears each year, so BEAR implant surgery represents 10% of his fixes currently. Two years from now, Meininger expects that proportion to increase to 50%. he was the only surgeon in Colorado doing the procedure until last week, when a surgeon from Denver completed a procedure, according to Michael McNulty, vice president of sales and marketing at implant developer Miach Orthopaedics.
The BEAR implant was pioneered by Dr. Martha Murray at the Boston Children’s Hospital Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, with initial research funding provided by the NFL Players Association, Boston Children’s Hospital and the National Institutes of Health.
Now six months into her recovery, Stefanik is swimming and taking her dog for walks. She is looking forward to competing again in pole vault, her favorite event, and beating the school record at West Grand High School in Kremmling where she will be a junior this upcoming school year. Her personal best in pole vault so far is 8 feet, 6 inches, and she and her coaches believe she will be able to clear 9 feet, 6 inches next season.
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