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Osteoarthritis (OA) causes joint pain and stiffness for 27 million Americans. Although there are many medications and treatments to ease OA symptoms, many patients with severe OA decide to have joint replacement surgery. In fact, nearly 700,000 Americans undergo hip or knee replacement each year. Another 23,000 have shoulder replacement surgery.

When Is It Time to Consider Joint Replacement Surgery?

When medications, physical therapy, and other treatments no longer offer relief -- and your ability to do everyday activities is limited -- your doctor might recommend joint replacement surgery. Doctors often tell patients to wait as long as possible before considering surgery because there are potential complications, just like with any surgery. Furthermore, artificial joints only have a life span of about a 10 to 15 years.

Before seeking joint replacement, consider these questions:

  • Can I still do all of the activities I enjoy, like hiking, shopping, or playing with my grandchildren?
  • Do the medications I take or other treatment mechanisms provide satisfactory relief from pain?
  • Can I sleep through the night without waking up because of pain?
  • Can I take care of myself on my own and do basic things like get up from a chair, drive a car, or use the bathroom without much pain?

If you answered yes to these questions, then you probably don’t need a joint replacement yet. However, if you answered no to these questions, you should discuss joint replacement with your doctor. Joint replacement is a valuable option when a patient’s pain has become so severe that he or she avoids moving the joint at all. Becoming sedentary can weaken the muscles surrounding the joint, making it even more difficult to move.

Before recommending a joint replacement, your doctor will examine you and take some X-rays of the joint to see the extent of the damage.

What Is Joint Replacement?

Performed by an orthopaedic surgeon, joint replacement surgery is exactly what its name says - the replacement of a damaged joint with a new artificial joint.

Artificial joints are often made of metal, plastic, or a combination of the two. There are two types of joints - cemented and uncemented. A cemented joint replacement uses bone cement to hold the new joint to the bone and is often performed in older people who are not as active. An uncemented joint is more appropriate for younger, more active patients who have strong, healthy bones.

During the surgery, you will be placed under anesthesia. Joint replacement surgeries generally last approximately two hours; however, the surgery can take longer depending on the individual case.

What Happens After Joint Replacement Surgery?

One of the most important parts of a successful recovery is to get your new joint moving safely. Your surgeon will ask you to move your new joint shortly after your surgery. You will likely stand or even walk the day after your surgery, using a walker or cane.

Within a day after your surgery, you will begin physical therapy to increase the strength, flexibility, and mobility of the new joint. Most patients are required to stay in the hospital for three to five days post-surgery. Although your hospital stay will likely be brief, your total recovery can take two to three months to a year. In cases when the patient is elderly or has experienced complications, he or she might spend several weeks or even months in a rehabilitation facility.

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