THERE is nothing like a new hip or knee to put the spring back in your step. Patients receiving joint implants often are able to resume many of the physical activities they love, even those as vigorous as tennis and hiking. No wonder, then, that joint replacement is growing in popularity.
In the United States in 2007, surgeons performed about 806,000 hip and knee implants (the joints most commonly replaced), double the number performed a decade earlier. Though these procedures have become routine, they are not fail-safe. Implants must sometimes be replaced, said Dr. Henrik Malchau, an orthopedic surgeon at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. A study published in 2007 found that 7 percent of hips implanted in Medicare patients had to be replaced within seven and a half years.
The percentage may sound low, but the finding suggests that thousands of hip patients eventually require a second operation, said Dr. Malchau. Those patients must endure additional recoveries, often painful, and increased medical expenses. The failure rate should be lower, many experts agree. Sweden, for instance, has a failure rate estimated to be a third of that in the United States.
Sweden also has a national joint replacement registry, a database of information from which surgeons can learn how and why certain procedures go awry. A registry also helps surgeons learn quickly whether a specific type of implant is particularly problematic. “Every country that has developed a registry has been able to reduce failure rates significantly,” said Dr. Daniel Berry, chief of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
A newly formed American Joint Replacement Registry will begin gathering data from hospitals in the next 12 to 18 months. Meanwhile, if you are considering replacing a deteriorating knee or hip, here are some ways to raise the chances of success and avoid a second operation.
EXPERIENCE COUNTS Choose — or request a referral to — an experienced surgeon at a busy hospital. “The most important variable is the technical job done by the surgeon,” said Dr. Donald C. Fithian, an orthopedic surgeon and the former director of Kaiser Permanente’s joint replacement registry. Ask for recommendations from friends who have had successful implants and from doctors you know and trust. When you meet with the surgeon, ask how many replacements he or she does each year.
VOLUME MATTERS A study published in The Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery in 2004 found that patients receiving knee replacements from doctors who performed more than 50 of the procedures a year had fewer complications than patients whose surgeons did 12 procedures or fewer a year. The researchers documented a similar trend when it came to hospital volume. Patients at hospitals that performed more than 200 knee replacements a year fared better than patients at hospitals that performed 25 or fewer.
ADJUST EXPECTATIONS Not everyone with joint pain will benefit from a joint replacement. An implant can help reduce pain and improve mobility if the joint surface is damaged by arthritis, for instance. But a new joint will not help pain caused by inflammation of the surrounding soft tissue, said Dr. Berry, who is also vice president of the board of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Some people with mildly arthritic joints, for instance, can manage well with the judicious use of medication. “Surgery comes with complications and risks, and should not be approached lightly,” Dr. Berry said.
Joint replacement is not a minor operation. If you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, chronic infection or another serious chronic condition, a joint replacement operation may be too risky a procedure for you. Seek advice from an experienced Orthopaedic Surgeon.