Rebuilding Your Body

Newsweek—July 3, 2006

Joint replacement was once considered a last resort for elderly patients who were immobilized. Now, thanks to improved artificial joints made from longer-lasting materials like titanium, patients in their fifties and younger are signing up in growing numbers. More than 600,000 hip and knee replacements were performed in the United States last year. While the average patient was well over 60 years old, the number of people younger than 65 getting the surgery has grown by 20 percent over the past five years.

“Maybe 10 or 15 years ago, the threshold was the ability to walk or do errands,” says Edwin P. Su, M.D., assistant attending orthopedic surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. “Now it’s continuing to ski, golf or windsurf.”

Doctors compare joint replacement to replacing tires on a car that’s out of alignment. Over the decades, your weight can wear down your bones. This is especially true for patients with arthritis, where inflammation destroys the cartilage surrounding the joint, causing the bones to grind together painfully.

In knee replacements, the most common joint-replacing procedure, doctors cut into the joint and remove the damaged portions of the tibia (the lower leg bone), patella (kneecap) and femur (thigh bone). They are replaced with metal and plastic components. Artificial knees generally last from 10 to 15 years. Hips are the second most commonly replaced joints, followed by shoulders.

Who’s a good candidate for this surgery? This is a treatment for people whose daily joint pain has severely curtailed their activity. Talk to your doctor, of course, but the procedure is elective – so you’ll have to make the final decision.

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