A fall at work in the ’90s caused Australian native Lianne Slinger an injury that led to a total hip replacement in 1999. She received a Sulzer metal-on-metal hip, which has now been recalled. Shortly after, she began experiencing a series of health problems from metal poisoning linked to her hip.
Metal-on-metal hip components are made of cobalt and chromium, which, upon corrosion and wear-down, can flake metal particles into the body and cause metallosis. Metallosis is a type of metal poisoning that is a resulting side effect of joint replacing devices such as metal-on-metal hip implants. The symptoms include implant failure, necrosis (tissue and bone death), and organ damage. These side effects may require revision surgery to treat. Common additional symptoms include cardiomyopathy (including heart failure), visual impairment that may lead to blindness, cognitive impairment, thyroid issues, auditory impairment that may lead to deafness, infection, and skin rashes among others.
Metal poisoning occurs when toxic levels of metal build up in the body, which can cause damage to the nervous system, tissue and bone. The results are painful and can be life-threatening. At the age of 51, Slinger has found herself battling health issues that she never thought she would be facing.
“I’ve been so sick it’s not funny,” Slinger said. “Sensitivity to light, headaches, swollen legs, facial numbness, chronic vertigo. But until I started falling over two years ago doctors took no notice of my complaints. I did not know about the suspected leaching until July last year when I was tested for cobalt/chromium. It came back as high. I have lost two kilos this week because I can’t eat. I still have the implant. There’s what’s called ‘pseudo tumour’ in there now – I’m told that’s what you get when you have cobalt in your body.”
Pseudo tumors are soft tissue changes in the surrounding tissues and bone of the hip prosthetic. According to a study published June 2015, a recent systematic review examined the blood test results from nearly 10,000 patients that had received a metal-on-metal hip implant. The results showed that the patients had metal ion concentrations “consistently higher” than previous blood tests performed immediately following the hip replacement. The levels of cobalt and chromium metal ions were particularly alarming.
Metal-on-metal hip implant manufacturers such as Wright Medical, DePuy Orthopaedics (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson), Stryker, Smith & Nephew and Zimmer Biomet Holdings have been facing a high number of lawsuits alleging injuries linked to the failed hip devices.