When is it time for a joint replacement?
December 09, 2013
After a long bout of physical activity, whether working in the garden or taking a long hike, your hips and knees may feel stiff and achy for a day or two.
That’s a normal part of aging, says UC Irvine Health orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Ran Schwarzkopf. After all, we don’t stay invincible teenagers forever. Recovery takes longer as we age.
But when normal aches and stiffness become chronic problems that impact your quality of life and daily activity, it may be time for a conversation with your family doctor and, ultimately, an orthopaedic surgeon.
Surgery is rarely the first step in treatment; often, pain is managed through medication and lifestyle changes, such as weight loss, exercise and physical therapy.
When conservative treatments are no longer effective, joint replacement may become a serious option – but not a requirement.
“I tell all of my patients that surgery is never a must,” says Schwarzkopf.
Because painful joints are not life-threatening, joint replacement surgery is a personal decision that should involve weighing both benefits and risks.
“The decision to have surgery must come from that patient,” Schwarzkopf says.
Understanding the risks
Because joint replacement is a major surgery, there are some risks involved, cautions Schwarzkopf.
Some of those risks include:
Schwarzkopf says the UC Irvine Health orthopaedic surgery team does a number of things to mitigate surgical risks, including testing patients for staph infections prior to surgery, giving antibiotics before and after surgery and examining patients every year or two to ensure the health of the patient and the replaced joint.
In addition to the risks of surgery, recovery time may also be a factor. Although you will begin moving your new joint soon after surgery, a full recovery and return to normal activities takes about six weeks to three months.
Making the decision
Before deciding to have a hip or knee replaced, Schwarzkopf suggests you consider the quality of life you want that you can’t have now.
“Think about what your hip or knee pain is preventing you from doing, whether it’s playing with your grandchildren or going for a walk on the beach,” he says.
Schwarzkopf says the decision to have joint replacement surgery often comes when patients weigh their quality of life against the risks of surgery – and surgery comes out on top.
“When you are giving up a lot of things worth living for and you are willing to take risks to improve your quality of life, that’s when you should have the surgery.”