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When Is Surgery Right for Rheumatoid Arthritis?

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Drugs for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) can slow down the disease. But for some people who already have joint damage, surgery may be something to consider.

Having surgery is never something to enter into lightly, but sometimes it can help.

There are a couple of reasons to choose surgery for rheumatoid arthritis:

  • To get relief from pain
  • To be able to move better

When Is the Timing Right?

When there is structural damage to a joint or the tissues around it, medicines can't fix it, so an operation may be an option.

You should talk with your rheumatologist and an orthopedic surgeon to find out if it would help you and what results are likely. Surgery can ease pain and allow you to get around much better, but it will rarely be a perfect fix. You want to have realistic expectations from the start.

Because any surgery is serious and can have complications, it's best to try other treatments first. If you wait too long, though, surgery can be less successful. Your rheumatologist and orthopedic surgeon can let you know when you’re ready for it.

What Is Total Joint Replacement?

The hip and the knee are the joints most often replaced in people with rheumatoid arthritis. The surgeon takes out the damaged parts and puts an artificial joint -- or prosthesis -- in its place.

With proper care and depending on things such as your weight, health, and activity level, a replaced joint can last more than 20 years. After that, you may need another surgery, which is harder and may not have as good results. That’s why the timing of joint replacement surgery is important.

When Do Doctors Recommend Knee Replacement Surgery?

If you have a stiff, painful knee that prevents you from doing even simple things and other treatments don’t work anymore, you may want to ask your doctor about knee replacement surgery.

“Minimally invasive” surgery for the knee joint uses a much smaller cut -- 3 to 5 inches -- vs. the standard approach, which typically requires a cut that’s 8 to 12 inches. With a smaller cut, your recovery time should be shorter. Plus, you may move better because you have less scar tissue from the operation.

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