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Time for a new joint?
Like a complicated machine, the body is made up of many moving parts — parts that can get damaged or just wear out. When a hip, knee or other joint starts to fail, we feel it — sometimes intensely.
"At first, the joint pain caused by an old injury or an ailment like arthritis might not be too bad," says Lake Regional Orthopedic Surgeon Jeffrey Mutchler, D.O. "Medication, exercise, ice packs, heat treatments or other remedies can bring relief — at least for a while."
"But for some people, the pain and stiffness get so bad that walking, climbing stairs, bathing or other everyday activities are just too much," adds Lake Regional Orthopedic Surgeon Curtis Mather, D.O. "At that point, it might be time to consider total joint replacement."
Each year, more than 1 million people have surgery to remove a damaged hip, knee or shoulder joint and replace it with an artificial one. For many, it's the best way to reduce pain, increase function and improve quality of life.
How it's done
An artificial joint, also called a prosthesis, can be made of metal, plastic or ceramic. During total joint replacement, an orthopedic surgeon removes the damaged bones and cartilage and then carefully shapes the artificial parts to fit in their place.
An artificial joint often lasts for 15 to 20 years or more. "They work much like a natural joint," Dr. Mather says. "For example, a knee will bend back and forth or a hip will rotate, but without the pain caused by the old joint."
The process of getting a new joint can start long before you arrive at the hospital. For example, before surgery, it's a good idea to:
- Stop smoking, if you smoke.
- Consider losing weight, if you are overweight or obese.
- Ask your doctor about exercises you can do to make recovery easier. For example, you may need to strengthen your upper body if you'll need to use a walker or crutches after your operation.
- Get your home ready for your recovery. For example, stock up on easy-to-fix foods so mealtime is simpler to manage. Knee and hip patients should remove rugs and other tripping hazards. Shoulder patients may want to put items on lower shelves to limit reaching. You'll also want to plan for recovery.
"After surgery, physical therapy is essential to strengthen muscles around the new joint, improve flexibility and reduce pain," Dr. Mutchler says.
Making your decision
Joint replacement surgery is usually very successful, even life-changing, for many people, including older patients.
"Most people who have these surgeries are happy with the results, especially the greater independence that comes with pain-free movement," Dr. Mutchler says.
Of course, like any surgery, joint replacement has risks.
"The good news is most of these operations aren't emergencies, so potential patients have plenty of time to consider all the pros and cons before making a decision," Dr. Mather says.
Before you agree to an operation, talk with your doctor. Among other things, ask:
- Are there nonsurgical remedies — such as different medications or new exercises — I could try?
- What are the risks and benefits of the specific surgery I may need?
- What restrictions will I have after surgery? How long will they last?
- What post-surgery therapy will I need?
- How long is my new joint likely to last?
It might also be a good idea to talk with other patients who have had similar operations.
"You want to make a well-informed decision," Dr. Mather says. "We're here to help you do that."
Sources: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons; Arthritis Foundation; National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases
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