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Understanding Microfracture Surgery: A Complete Guide to Procedure and Recovery

Are you wrestling with knee pain from cartilage damage? Microfracture surgery might be on your radar. This guide cuts through the clutter to explain how this procedure works, who it helps, and what recovery looks like—giving you the critical information to weigh your options.

Key Takeaways

  • Microfracture surgery is a minimally invasive procedure aimed at regenerating damaged articular cartilage in the knee by stimulating the body’s natural healing process, but is not suitable for all patients depending on factors like age, activity level, and extent of cartilage damage.
  • A comprehensive pre-surgical evaluation including physical exams, diagnostic imaging, and health optimization, followed by meticulous patient-specific surgical planning, is essential for the success of microfracture surgery.
  • Post-surgical recovery and rehabilitation are critical to achieving functional outcomes, involving limited weight-bearing, use of continuous passive motion machines, tailored physical therapy, and can typically allow return to full activity in 6 to 12 months.

Exploring Microfracture Surgery

A diagram of microfracture

Microfracture surgery is a game-changer in the world of orthopedic treatments. This surgical technique specifically targets damaged areas of articular cartilage in the knee, where there has been full thickness damage down to the bone. The procedure aims to regenerate the chondral surface of joints, especially the articular cartilage, by creating small fractures in the subchondral bone.

This technique is particularly beneficial for athletes and active individuals who are treated with microfracture, as it can significantly improve their quality of life by reducing pain and improving knee function. But what’s the science behind this arthroscopic procedure? We’ll examine this further.

The Science Behind Microfracture

The microfracture technique’s strength lies in its simplicity and natural approach. The procedure is based on the principle of stimulating the body’s natural healing process. This is achieved by accessing bone marrow cells through small holes drilled in the bone during the microfracture procedure.

The controlled creation of microfracture holes allows marrow-based progenitor cells and growth factors to access the site, enabling the formation of cartilaginous repair tissue on the articular surface. Introduced around two decades ago, this articular cartilage repair knee surgery, also known as bone joint surg, has been transforming lives by utilizing the body’s natural healing abilities to regenerate tissue on the chondral surface of the knee joint, effectively resurfacing osteoarthritic knee joints.

Suitability for Microfracture

Despite microfracture surgery’s potential, it isn’t suitable for everyone. The procedure is best suited for patients with specific types of cartilage damage such as:

  • full-thickness defects in weightbearing areas of the knee
  • areas where there is patellar contact with the joint
  • unstable cartilage over the underlying bone
  • degenerative changes with normal knee alignment

However, several factors influence a patient’s suitability for microfracture surgery, including:

  • Age
  • Activity level
  • Knee alignment
  • Size and containment of the cartilage defect

For example, patients with increased BMI and older age have been correlated with poorer postoperative outcomes following microfracture knee surgery. Hence, the procedure may not be suitable for patients with extensive cartilage damage or certain medical conditions that can impede healing.

Pre-Surgical Considerations

There are several critical factors to consider before proceeding with microfracture surgery aimed at improving knee health. A comprehensive evaluation is the first step towards assessing the extent of knee damage. This evaluation includes a physical examination, review of the patient’s medical history, and identification of any comorbidities that may affect surgical outcomes.

Diagnostic imaging, such as MRI, is used to ascertain the full extent of articular cartilage damage and determine the appropriate surgical approach for an articular cartilage injury. In addition, patients are advised to optimize their health prior to surgery, which may involve managing comorbidities, improving nutritional status, and enhancing overall physical fitness.

Planning for post-operative support and understanding the recovery timeline and the need for physical therapy are also essential steps in the pre-surgical journey.

Assessing the Damage

Assessing the damage to the knee is a vital step in the pre-surgical process. The MRI is instrumental in this process, providing detailed images that help assess cartilage thickness and ascertain the condition of the subchondral bone. While radiography serves as an initial screening tool, it may not detect early cartilage damage, thus necessitating additional imaging via CT or ultrasonography for better visualization and assessment.

Advanced imaging techniques such as optical coherence tomography (OCT) and multiphoton microscopy (MPM) provide a more refined analysis of cartilage, including the calcified cartilage layer, revealing subsurface cartilage defects and cellular level damage that can greatly inform surgical planning. Moreover, innovative quantitative MRI techniques like T2 mapping and T1 rho mapping extend the imaging capabilities by assessing the biochemical properties of cartilage, complementing the structural imaging data.

Planning for Success

Meticulous planning is essential for a successful microfracture surgery. Since each knee is unique, surgeons must consider the individual’s specific knee characteristics when planning the microfracture technique. The surgical plan must be patient-specific, taking into account the precise location and size of the cartilage lesion, and adjusting the method accordingly.

In addition, surgeons assess the likely outcomes of the procedure based on the patient’s condition, explaining the subsequent recovery process and expected milestones. This meticulous planning paves the way for a successful surgery and a smooth recovery, keeping in mind the ultimate goal of restoring knee function and improving the patient’s quality of life.

The Microfracture Procedure Step-by-Step

Illustration of the microfracture procedure

After completing the pre-surgical evaluations and preparing the patient, the microfracture surgery can proceed. The procedure begins with making an incision in the knee area, targeting the bone where cartilage damage has occurred. Multiple small holes are then carefully created in the bone at the site of the cartilage loss.

These microfracture holes are vital to the healing process. They allow blood, rich with growth factors, to cover the bone surface and stimulate the growth of new cartilage. This basic yet innovative surgical technique is the fundamental principle behind the success of microfracture knee surgery.

Intraoperative Technique

The effectiveness of the microfracture procedure hinges largely on the intraoperative technique. The microfracture technique utilizes angled awls at varying angles such as 30°, 45°, and 90° to access different areas of the joint and create microfractures.

The creation of these microfractures aims to form a rough surface that can effectively retain the marrow clot, which is critical for the healing process. The surgery is initiated with anesthesia, small incisions, and the use of an arthroscope, which facilitates the precise removal of unstable cartilage.

From the Operating Room to Recovery

The path to recovery commences once the microfracture surgery is completed. Immediate postoperative care includes the use of a brace locked at 0° for 6 to 8 weeks and limited compression of the regenerating surfaces. During the initial recovery period, passive motion is allowed with the brace removed, supplemented by the use of a continuous passive motion (CPM) machine and cold therapy to support minimal joint motion.

The patient’s compliance to the prescribed rehabilitation and postoperative care protocols significantly influences the success of microfracture surgery. Therefore, the quality of guidance and care provided by surgeons during the postoperative phase is crucial in achieving positive outcomes.

Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy

Illustration of rehabilitation and physical therapy

Rehabilitation plays a pivotal role in the recovery process following microfracture surgery. It is instrumental in achieving optimal joint function and a successful return to daily activities and sports. Early rehabilitation protocols prioritize maintaining a range of motion and mobility, especially in the patellar region.

Tailored to the individual patient’s needs, the postoperative rehabilitation programs take into account various factors such as the lesion’s characteristics and surgical details. Successful rehabilitation can help individuals not only recover but also return to professional-level sports and athleticism.

Initial Healing Phase

Optimal healing depends significantly on the initial recovery phase after the microfracture surgery. During this phase, weight-bearing activities are limited, and continuous passive motion (CPM) is extensively used. Studies have shown that patients who used CPM machines following microfracture surgery experienced improved cartilage healing.

Gradual Return to Activity

As healing progresses, patients can gradually return to their regular activities. This transition includes:

  • Partial weight-bearing activities using crutches
  • Controlled passive motion exercises to aid cartilage healing
  • Aquatic therapy to facilitate gait training and lower extremity exercises once incisions are suitably healed.

Strengthening exercises in the early stages of recovery target the quadriceps muscle, employing methods such as quadriceps sets and straight leg raises. Over time, patients move from partial to full weight-bearing, advancing rehabilitation exercises carefully to nurture healing and prevent complications. The final maturation phase, which can vary among patients, involves a graduated reintegration of full activities, ultimately reaching full activity levels in 6 to 12 months.

Long-Term Outcomes and Considerations

While microfracture surgery shows promise in restoring knee function and alleviating pain, understanding the potential long-term outcomes and considerations is vital. The effectiveness of the procedure can result in improved knee function, pain relief, and cartilage regrowth, but results may vary. For some patients, the surgery may slow the progress of cartilage damage and potentially postpone the necessity for knee replacement surgery.

However, patient-reported outcomes have shown long-term improvements following microfracture surgery; but the size of the defect and the patient’s history of prior knee surgery can indicate a future need for additional surgical intervention. Studies have revealed that after an average of 2.63 years post-microfracture, 42.1% of treated knees required additional surgeries.

Evaluating Success

The success of microfracture surgery is typically gauged through patient-reported outcomes. Scales such as the Lysholm, International Knee Documentation Committee (IKDC), and Knee injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score (KOOS) are commonly used. Many patients have reported significant improvements in terms of pain relief, enhanced knee function, and overall quality of life at the two-year post-surgery mark.

However, despite the reported benefits, microfracture surgery results may deteriorate over time and there is evidence that it can lead to subchondral bone overgrowth in some patients.

Beyond Microfracture

Illustration of alternative treatments for cartilage repair

When microfracture surgery doesn’t yield the expected results for some patients, alternative treatments must be considered. Arthroscopic debridement and total knee arthroplasty were among the most common additional procedures required after microfracture.

Osteochondral allograft (OCA) transplantation is considered the most dependable treatment for failed microfracture surgeries. However, revising failed OCA transplants with additional OCA procedures has been associated with increased failure rates.

Alternative Cartilage Repair Techniques

Although microfracture surgery has been revolutionary, it isn’t the only available cartilage repair solution. Alternative techniques such as Osteochondral autograft transfer (OAT) and Autologous chondrocyte implantation (ACI) also offer promising results. Studies have shown that there are no significant effects on long-term outcomes between treatment options such as debridement, microfracture, and no surgical treatment for concomitant full-thickness cartilage lesions.

Autologous chondrocyte implantation (ACI) can be satisfactory for some patients as a repeat intervention but has a higher failure rate when previously performed on patients with a history of subchondral marrow stimulation. Therefore, it’s crucial to consider all available options and discuss with your healthcare provider to choose the best course of treatment for your specific condition.


Many structures have a poor blood supply, so they can struggle to heal on their own. It is the oxygen and nutrients in our blood supply that help to heal these structures.

Prolotherapy involves the injection of a regenerative solution into these structures to provide a direct supply of what is required to heal and repair.

As the treatment helps to treat the root cause of the problem, it is deemed to be a permanent fix.

Real-Life Experiences with Microfracture

Illustration of real-life experiences with microfracture surgery

The effectiveness of microfracture surgery is attested by the real-life experiences of patients who have undergone it. Over 2000 patients have been treated with microfracture, with the majority experiencing significant pain relief and improved function in daily activities and sports. Patients have reported satisfaction with their recovery process, enabling them to enjoy activities they did prior to injury.

Many have returned to sports and physical activities without pain and with restored knee functionality after the surgery. A patient with a chronic knee condition reported significant pain relief and the ability to resume strength training and athletic activities without restrictions after the microfracture surgery. Another patient experienced a rapid recovery post-microfracture surgery, managing to squat body weight within weeks and achieving full recovery in two months.


Microfracture surgery has opened new avenues for individuals grappling with knee pain and limited mobility due to damaged articular cartilage. By leveraging the body’s natural healing abilities, this procedure has shown promising results in terms of pain relief, improved knee function, and the ability to return to sports and daily activities. However, it’s essential to understand that the procedure may not be suitable for everyone and the outcomes can vary.

In conclusion, microfracture surgery is a significant development in the field of orthopedics, offering hope to many patients. But the journey to a healthier knee requires careful consideration, thorough evaluation, meticulous surgical planning, and dedicated rehabilitation. Remember, the key to a successful recovery is in your hands. Stay committed to your rehabilitation program, follow your doctor’s advice, and you can look forward to a future with less pain and more mobility.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does microfracture take to heal?

Recovering from microfracture surgery can take about 9 to 12 months, and younger individuals with recent injuries tend to have better outcomes. Athletes in intense sports may struggle to return to their previous level of performance.

What is microfracture surgery?

Microfracture surgery is a procedure that creates small fractures in the knee’s subchondral bone to stimulate natural cartilage growth, targeting damaged areas of articular cartilage. It is used to treat cartilage injuries.

Who is a good candidate for microfracture surgery?

Microfracture surgery is suitable for patients with specific types of cartilage damage, particularly full-thickness defects in weightbearing areas of the knee. Factors such as age, activity level, knee alignment, and the size of the cartilage defect also influence suitability.

What does the microfracture procedure involve?

The microfracture procedure involves making an incision in the knee area and creating small holes in the bone at the site of the cartilage loss to stimulate the growth of new cartilage.

What can I expect during recovery?

During the initial healing phase, weight-bearing activities will be limited, and continuous passive motion will be used. As healing progresses, you can gradually return to regular activities, ultimately reaching full activity levels in 6 to 12 months.

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