It used to be that as we aged, our knees simply wore out, and there wasn’t much we could do but endure the discomfort. But today, more and more spare parts are available to replace our worn-out joints, giving people more mobility and comfort in their later decades.

Knee replacement surgery still is a big deal, and it’s not done lightly. Usually, surgery is recommended only when all other less-invasive options have run their course.

Arthritis is a degenerative disease that causes joint inflammation, pain and loss of function. This chronic condition also can cause the cartilage that cushions the knee joint to wear away. Bone-on-bone contact is painful and is usually treated initially with oral pain medications, lifestyle modifications and anti-inflammatory injections to the knee itself. Arthroscopic surgery can help remove small bits of torn cartilage and offer some relief.

However, when all these treatments have been used and the patient continues to suffer pain and disability, knee replacement surgery often is recommended. Ironically, fear of surgery and recovery may cause some people to wait longer than necessary before undergoing the procedure. “Whereas it’s not a simple procedure, it does tend to a very high degree to satisfy pain relief and improve function. A lot of people do wait, and they probably suffer a little more than they need to,” says orthopedic surgeon Dr. Donald Bassman.

Today’s knee replacements are made of plastics and metals that are expected to withstand daily wear and tear for years. Most patients will not outlive their artificial joint. At the same time, techniques have improved for minimally invasive surgery that speeds recovery and decreases the risk of post-surgical complications, such as infection.

Minimally invasive joint replacement surgery still involves a 4- to 6-inch long incision, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, but this is an improvement over the 8- to 10-inch incisions used prior to minimally invasive techniques.

With minimally invasive surgery, “patients get out of the hospital quicker (generally within two days), they have significantly less pain, and they’re usually able to walk without a walker or cane within a few days to a couple of weeks,’ says Dr. Kurt Merkel, an orthopedic surgeon on staff at Missouri Baptist Medical Center. “It speeds up the rehabilitation significantly, and pain reduction is significant, also.” Merkel has performed minimally invasive knee replacement surgery for 17 years and advises patients to seek an experienced surgeon and hospital where many knee replacements are done.

The future of knee replacement surgery may allow surgeons to rely more on robotic assistance to become even more precise in the placement of artificial joints. “In three or four years, we’re actually going to have a robot with a mechanical arm that will cut the end of the bone itself, and all we’ll be doing is pressing a button,” Merkel says.

With today’s advanced techniques and reduced recovery periods, it’s worth the time to talk with an experienced orthopedic surgeon about replacing a painful, arthritic knee with a new, pain-free model.

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