Moving With Ease:
Joint Replacements Can Help You Be Active
Sometimes you hear about a medical treatment that gives people a new lease on life.
That’s a dramatic claim to be sure. But if any treatment can do it, it’s joint replacement.
In many cases, replacing a damaged, painful joint with a new artificial one can help you move freely and painlessly again. Daily tasks, such as preparing meals and dressing, become easier, and many people can return to activities they once enjoyed, such as playing golf, hiking or bicycling.
“I’ve seen joint replacement surgery completely turn people’s lives around just by freeing them from the daily pain they’d been experiencing,” says Craig Della Valle, MD, a joint replacement surgeon at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
The chief reason for most joint replacements is damage from arthritis. Both osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis can damage cartilage — the smooth substance that allows bones in a joint to glide against one another — as well as bones and other tissues that make up the joint.
When arthritis causes cartilage to break down, the rough edges of bones rub against each other, causing pain. Damage to the bones and other tissues can also cause pain and swelling and limit movement.
Joints can also be damaged by the following:
- Sports injuries
- Car accidents and other trauma
- Wear from activities that require repetitive motion, such as typing or operating heavy equipment
At first, joint pain is usually treated with anti-inflammatory medications, steroid injections and other nonsurgical options.
Over time, however, these treatments may lose their effectiveness, and pain can make it difficult to do the activities you used to enjoy or even to climb stairs, get dressed or take a bath.
“Most patients who decide they’re going to have replacement surgery have pain that affects their daily activities,” Della Valle says.
Is Joint Replacement Right for You?
We all experience and cope with pain differently, so ultimately, you are the only person who can decide whether joint replacement surgery is right for you.
Talking with your doctor and considering these questions can help you make a decision. You might benefit from replacement surgery if you answer yes to any of the following:
- Does joint pain keep you from sleeping well?
- Are pain medications no longer effectively treating your pain?
- Do sore joints prevent you from regular outings, such as shopping, visiting friends or going on vacation?
Other factors to consider are your age and which joint would be replaced. In the past, joint replacements weren’t considered optimal for people in their 30s and 40s or younger because the artificial joint may wear out over time, requiring repeat surgeries to replace or repair it.
However, more people in their 30s and 40s are having hip and knee joint replacements because of improved, longer-lasting artificial joints for those areas.
For smaller implants, such as those used in the fingers, elbows and shoulders, age remains an important factor, because the joints can sustain more wear and tear and may wear out over time. For example, even with improved designs, the life span of elbow and wrist replacements is estimated at 10 to 20 years.
If you are younger than 50, instead of having these joints replaced, you may want to consider other options, such as joint resurfacing, maintaining drug treatment or cartilage restoration.
Big Joints or Small, Look to the Experts
If you’ve decided a joint replacement is right for you, consider Rush when choosing your health care team. In addition to a long history of performing knee and hip replacements, surgeons at Rush are also leaders in less common procedures, such as shoulder, elbow and finger joint replacements. In fact, Rush is one of the only hospitals in the state that offers joint replacement surgery for the elbow, wrist and hand. “As with a knee or hip replacement, replacing a finger, elbow or shoulder joint can make a remarkable difference in your life,” says Mark Cohen, MD, a hand, wrist and elbow surgeon at Rush.
“Think about instances when you bend your elbow — to open a door, use a computer, eat a meal — then imagine all of those experiences being painful, and you can see why replacing an elbow can make such a difference in someone’s life,” Cohen says.
Joint Resurfacing: A Joint Tune-up
Surgeons at Rush also specialize in joint resurfacing, an alternative to joint replacement.
In this procedure, damaged areas of a joint are removed and replaced with a smooth surface made of metal or biological materials, such as grafts, to reduce pain and restore movement. According to Anthony Romeo, MD, a shoulder surgeon at Rush, resurfacing is used most often to relieve joint pain in the hips and shoulders.
Resurfacing can help younger patients — such as those in their 30s and 40s — avoid a full replacement until they are older and potentially avoid repeat surgeries for worn replacements.
Another advantage of beginning with resurfacing, particularly for the shoulder, is that it preserves the bone, making it possible to have a full joint replacement in the future if additional surgery is needed.
If a shoulder implant has to be removed and replaced, bone is lost. Anatomically, there is less bone in the shoulder to begin with, and a second replacement is not always possible in this joint.
Your doctor will consider both your age and the severity of the damage to your joint when deciding whether to recommend joint resurfacing.
A physician can help you determine what will work best for you. If you have joint pain and are interested in treatments that can help, call (888) 352-RUSH (888 352-7874) for more information or for a physician referral.
Joint Replacement at Rush
Orthopedic surgeons at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, Illinois, have pioneered major advances in joint replacement surgery, including cementless implants, minimally invasive approaches to knee and hip replacement and use of a more flexible knee implant that behaves more like a person’s own knee.
For more information visit the Joint Replacement Surgery home page.
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