Damage to the cartilage of this type is fairly common among young, active athletes. The cartilage doesn't have much ability to heal on its own so without surgery, pain and joint degeneration are likely.
There are a number of different ways to treat full-thickness cartilage defects. Besides cartilage transplantation, holes can be drilled into the cartilage to stimulate healing. This operation is called microfracture.
Sometimes the patient is able to donate his or her own cells. Live cartilage cells are removed and multiplied in a laboratory setting. Then the new cells are implanted in the damaged area. This is called autologous chondrocyte implantation.
The rehab program for any of these procedures is similar. Some of the specifics may vary from center to center. Some surgeons may have their own preferred protocols. According to the Institute for Cartilage Repair at Cornell Medical College in New York, you can expect up to a year-long recovery time.
Following surgery, all patients at the Institute use a device called continuous passive motion (CPM). The leg is placed in the CPM unit and gently moved through the full range of motion for hours at a time. Most patients use this at night.
During the day, their patients are placed in a hinged knee brace for at least eight weeks (usually longer). They are allowed to touch their toe to the ground for stability and balance when walking.
After eight weeks, patients are switched into a special brace that unloads the joint. This brace is used for another four months. A program of exercise supervised by a physical therapist begins at the end of two weeks after surgery. Therapy continues until the patient regains a strength and motion. By this time the patient is usually walking normally again with good motor control.