Joint replacement myths and facts
The rules have changed.
“You’d be shocked at how many patients come in thinking they’re too young for knee or hip replacement surgery,” said C. Christopher Sherry, DO, an orthopedic surgeon and joint replacement specialist with Spectrum Health Medical Group.
Some patients get this notion from their doctors. Others pick up the idea from friends who remember the conventional wisdom of 30 years ago—that you need to be older than 50 to qualify for joint replacement.
That’s simply not the case anymore, according to Dr. Sherry. It’s one of six common myths about joint replacements that he’d like to see dispelled.
Myth No. 1: If you’re under 50, you’re too young to have a joint replaced.
Fact: Doctors today don’t use a specific age to determine whether a patient is a good candidate for hip or knee replacement surgery. Instead, the decision depends on the levels of disability and pain the patient is experiencing.
“In the 1970s and ’80s, the parts used for joint replacements had limited life spans,” Dr. Sherry said. “Now that technology is advancing, we have better longevity of replacement parts, so we’re much more comfortable putting them in younger patients.”
Patients with severe arthritis, for example, shouldn’t have to suffer through years of debilitating pain just because they’re young, Dr. Sherry said. “Making them wait isn’t in their best interest.”
This first myth is closely related to a second.
Myth No. 2: Replacement joints wear out in 10 years or less.
Fact: Thanks to improvements in materials and surgical techniques, today’s knee and hip replacements can last up to twice as long as comparable replacements did in decades past.
“The components we’re using have improved significantly,” said Dr. Sherry. “We’re seeing an 85 percent success rate at up to 20 years—and as technology improves, we’re hoping to pass that 20-year mark.”
People are often relieved to hear this because they want to stay active as they age.
“Patients’ expectations are changing,” Dr. Sherry said. “They want to be able to do whatever they want to do.”
Myth No. 3: If you have a joint replaced, you’ll be saying goodbye to sports.
Fact: Rather than drastically limiting patients’ activities, joint replacements make it easier for people to be active in low-impact sports.
“The goal of surgery is to get patients back to their normal activities, like playing golf and tennis,” Dr. Sherry said. “Our goal is a painless joint with good functionality.”
It’s the high-impact sports like basketball and long-distance running that patients should avoid, he said, because these activities decrease the life of replacement joints.
Myth No. 4: Joint replacement surgery means a long hospital stay.
Fact: Twenty years ago, it was normal to spend up to 10 days in the hospital after joint replacement surgery, but today the average is two to three days.
“With improvements in technology and patient care, hospital stays are significantly shorter than in the old days,” Dr. Sherry said.
Most of Dr. Sherry’s patients at the Center for Joint Replacement at Spectrum Health Blodgett Hospital stay less than two days after hip or knee replacements, with a large percentage going home the day after surgery. Some patients return home the same day as surgery.
“We’re getting patients up and walking sooner—even on the day of surgery,” he said. “And we’re getting them home sooner, which is a better environment for recovery.”
Myth No. 5: You should wait as long as possible before having a joint replaced.
Fact: Waiting too long can make things worse.
“If your pain is so great that it’s hindering your ability to walk, then you’re not keeping your muscles and your extremities strong, and you could be hindering the recovery process,” Dr. Sherry said. “Waiting until the last possible moment isn’t good for you.”
Rather than waiting for their mobility and quality of life to decline, Dr. Sherry encourages patients to have their knee or hip replacement sooner. This will likely improve their outcomes.
Myth No. 6: Joint replacement surgery is highly invasive.
Fact: “Some patients think that we remove the entire knee in a knee replacement … but we’re actually taking a minimal amount of bone” before inserting the new parts, Dr. Sherry said. In knee replacement surgery, these parts consist of a metal cap for the femur, a metal base plate on the tibia and a piece of plastic in between, acting as cartilage.
Surgeons today are also using less-invasive techniques and smaller incisions to perform replacements.
So, although joint replacement is major surgery, the scope is limited, Dr. Sherry said. “It’s much less invasive than many patients think.”