High-tech knee brace has supporters and skeptics

May 6, 2011 8:31:04 PM PDT
A high-tech brace is offering some knee pain sufferers an alternative to surgery. The BioniCare's technology has both supporters and skeptics.

Kim Georgia is no stranger to pain. She says arthritis in her left knee can sometimes make it difficult to move normally.

"The pain level would be a seven if I walk or do things," she said.

But Georgia says she has found relief with a high-tech knee brace, sold under the name BioniCare. The brace is fitted with electrodes which deliver a low intensity charge, known as pulsed electronic stimulation, into her knee and thigh area.

"It definitely does bring the pain level down to a place that is much more functional," Georgia said.

Georgia's physician, Dr. Moshe Lewis says the brace itself helps stabilize the knee during movement, providing some of the relief. But he says the electronic pulses also contribute to the effect.

"You're getting two benefits -- the brace correct misalignment, then the tens, or electronic stimulation piece, is allowing patients to not experiences so much pain when they ambulate," Lewis said.

According to the company, the device delivers a negative charge similar to electric pulses present naturally in the cartilage of the knee joint. They theorize that electricity is part of a system that helps keep the joints healthy -- a system that is interrupted by osteoarthritis.

"It's really trying to limit the pain, can't go as far as saying its rebuilding the cartilage, but there is something electronic stimulation being important to growth," Lewis said.

The device is FDA approved, but other orthopedic specialists ABC7 spoke with are more cautious about the BioniCare brace, which costs about $1,500 and at least one new study is also raising questions about its value.

The Australian study, published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism, gave patients with mild to moderate symptoms electronic pulses similar to those delivered by the BioniCare. It found the level of relief was no different for patients who received the pulses than those who were given a placebo version.

"No one even knows if putting a charge across the knee even changes a charge inside the knee joint, never mind actually stimulating cartilage," Dr. Susan Lewis said.

Dr. Susan Lewis is an orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco. She says, while there is no risk from the stimulation, patients would likely also benefit from less expensive systems.

"You could try a simple brace that doesn't have all the fancy electrical stimulation going through it is probably as effective and in fact, none of the studies have compared that brace to a simple brace," Dr. Susan Lewis said.

BioniCare's creators have challenged the Australian study, in part because it did not involve the actual device and they point to the company's own research that found the brace helped about 60 percent of patients delay knee replacement by up to four years.

Georgia believes the BioniCare brace has allowed her to move with less pain.

"I'm able to walk stairs better, be active walk on the beach," she said.

Not all insurance plans cover the BioniCare brace.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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