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Questions and Answers about Hip Replacement

What Is a Hip Replacement?

Hip replacement, or arthroplasty, is a surgical procedure in which the diseased parts of the hip joint are removed and replaced with new, artificial parts. These artificial parts are called the prosthesis. The goals of hip replacement surgery are to improve mobility by relieving pain and improve function of the hip joint.

Who Should Have Hip Replacement Surgery?

The most common reason that people have hip replacement surgery is the wearing down of the hip joint that results from osteoarthritis. Other conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis (a chronic inflammatory disease that causes joint pain, stiffness, and swelling), avascular necrosis (loss of bone caused by insufficient blood supply), injury, and bone tumors also may lead to breakdown of the hip joint and the need for hip replacement surgery.

Before suggesting hip replacement surgery, the doctor is likely to try walking aids such as a cane, or non-surgical therapies such as medication and physical therapy. These therapies are not always effective in relieving pain and improving the function of the hip joint. Hip replacement may be an option if persistent pain and disability interfere with daily activities. Before a doctor recommends hip replacement, joint damage should be detectable on x rays.

In the past, hip replacement surgery was an option primarily for people over 60 years of age. Typically, older people are less active and put less strain on the artificial hip than do younger, more active people. In recent years, however, doctors have found that hip replacement surgery can be very successful in younger people as well. New technology has improved the artificial parts, allowing them to withstand more stress and strain. A more important factor than age in determining the success of hip replacement is the overall health and activity level of the patient.

For some people who would otherwise qualify, hip replacement may be problematic. For example, people who suffer from severe muscle weakness or Parkinson's disease are more likely than healthy people to damage or dislocate an artificial hip. Because people who are at high risk for infections or in poor health are less likely to recover successfully, doctors may not recommend hip replacement surgery for these patients.

What Are Alternatives to Total Hip Replacement?

Before considering a total hip replacement, the doctor may try other methods of treatment, such as an exercise program and medication. An exercise program can strengthen the muscles in the hip joint and sometimes improve positioning of the hip and relieve pain.

The doctor also may treat inflammation in the hip with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. Some common NSAIDs are aspirin and ibuprofen. Many of these medications are available without a prescription, although a doctor also can prescribe NSAIDs in stronger doses.

In a small number of cases, the doctor may prescribe corticosteroids, such as prednisone or cortisone, if NSAIDs do not relieve pain. Corticosteroids reduce joint inflammation and are frequently used to treat rheumatic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. Corticosteroids are not always a treatment option because they can cause further damage to the bones in the joint. Some people experience side effects from corticosteroids such as increased appetite, weight gain, and lower resistance to infections. A doctor must prescribe and monitor corticosteroid treatment. Because corticosteroids alter the body's natural hormone production, patients should not stop taking them suddenly and should follow the doctor's instructions for discontinuing treatment.

If physical therapy and medication do not relieve pain and improve joint function, the doctor may suggest corrective surgery that is less complex than a hip replacement, such as an osteotomy. Osteotomy is surgical repositioning of the joint. The surgeon cuts away damaged bone and tissue and restores the joint to its proper position. The goal of this surgery is to restore the joint to its correct position, which helps to distribute weight evenly in the joint. For some people, an osteotomy relieves pain. Recovery from an osteotomy takes 6 to 12 months. After an osteotomy, the function of the hip joint may continue to worsen and the patient may need additional treatment. The length of time before another surgery is needed varies greatly and depends on the condition of the joint before the procedure.

WebMD Public Information from the U.S. National Institutes of Health

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