No matter what they’re made of, all hip implant devices release debris into the body through normal wear. Traditional hip implants made of metal and plastic composites typically last about 15 years in the average patient and, while particles of plastic can cause bone damage and lead to loosening of the device, the problems are relatively less aggressive. Ironically, all-metal hip devices, which were designed to last even longer and packed a lot of appeal for younger, more active patients, often fail prematurely in just a few years’ time, leaving some patients in chronic pain and permanently damaged in the area of the implant.
According to a recent New York Times report, the gradual degradation of all-metal hip implants can have a chain reaction effect on a patient’s health. As metal components abrade against each other, the friction releases cobalt and chromium into the blood and tissue. The body in turn sends scavenger cells to fight the alien particles. These scavenger cells eat the metal particles, but in the digestion process, the metal particles are transformed into electrically charged ions, which react with tissue.
This process often leads to a condition called metallosis, in which metallic debris is deposited in the soft tissue and muscle around the implant, causing decay. The damage can occur extensively in the area of the implant within a few years. The decaying tissue around the implant may lead to a loosening and potential dislocation of the implant.
Elevated levels of the metallic ions in the blood can also manifest in a number of other ways, causing memory loss, forgetfulness, cognitive decline, rashes, impaired vision, tumors, and more. More studies are underway that may help doctors understand why some patients are more susceptible to metal poisoning from the implants than others, and why some all-metal implants are safer than others, but the results of those studies could take years.