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How to Take Care of Your Joint Replacement

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How to Take Care of Your Joint Replacement

Jul 29, 2022

As technologies and practices advance, more people than ever before are receiving joint replacements. These implants are also being done much earlier in life. How do you take care of a joint replacement so it lasts as long as possible? Orthopedic surgeon Michael J. Archibeck, MD walks through the steps of a successful joint replacement procedure so patients can keep the implant working and live a fully functional life.

Interviewer: As technology and practices have improved, more people than ever are receiving joint implants. In fact, "The Journal of Rheumatology" projects as many as 600,000 joint replacements in the U.S. by the year 2030.

With more folks receiving an implant, how do you take care of it and ensure that it lasts as long as possible? To answer those questions, today, we are joined by Dr. Mike Archibeck. He is an associate professor with the Division of Adult Reconstruction at University of Utah Health.

The First Year After Your Joint Replacement

Now, Dr. Archibeck, for someone who has just barely received a replacement joint, whether it be a knee or a hip or something like that, what do they need to know about taking care of it for, say, the first year after surgery?

Dr. Archibeck: Yeah. So I think I'm primarily going to talk about total knees and total hip replacements. That's kind of the purview of the Adult Reconstruction Division in the Department of Orthopedics. So we do total knees and total hips as well as revision total knees and total hips.

The Recovery Period

And so there are a few things that are generic in regards to how to maximize your recovery early after surgery. Most would consider the first year as kind of the recovery period. It's been shown that both hips and knees generally do improve over that year, even though the vast majority of the improvement is in the first few months.

And during that first year, there are a few things you can do to kind of maximize the outcome and protect it from the dangers. Early after surgery, one of the most common complications is a blood clot in the leg or something that we call a deep venous thrombosis. So, usually, patients are prescribed some form of blood thinner. It could be aspirin. It could be something stronger. So being sure to do bed exercise during the day, get up about every hour or so, and go for a short walk.

You also want to be sure that the wound heals. So one of the concerns early after surgery is infection. Try not to overdo it such that the knee or hip area becomes too swollen, that can slow or compromise wound healing, and being sure to avoid any other types of infections that you might get early after surgery, like a urinary tract infection or a skin infection.

So if any of those things develop, or dental issues, you want to touch base with your surgeon and be sure those are treated so they don't potentially get into the bloodstream and make it to the hip or knee replacement.

And then recovery-wise, some patients participate in formal physical therapy. And more commonly now, more and more patients are doing kind of directed physical therapy, but working on whatever the tasks might be that the therapists direct you to do.

So with a knee, early after surgery, one of the high priorities is working on range of motion. A hip, less of a concern range of motion, but with both, starting to work on gait training initially with a walker, and then subsequently, weaning to a cane, and gradually off. Usually, that process is coached by the therapist or the surgeon and his team.

And trying to avoid overdoing it. Like I mentioned, you can really set yourself back if you do too much too soon. You can get swollen, wound healing can be slower, and it can just be more painful and kind of slow the recovery process.

So, again, the main things to be careful about are watch for the signs of blood clot, which would be significant swelling in that leg that does not respond to elevation, protecting the wound from infection, and just being an active participant in your recovery and physical therapy.

When Can I Start Walking After My Joint Replacement Surgery?

Interviewer: For someone who has received a joint replacement or is about to have joint replacement surgery, the recovery takes anywhere from 10 months to a year. So when will they see the most improvement? I mean, when will they start walking again?

Dr. Archibeck: Yeah. So, with both, you'll really be walking the day of surgery, obviously to a limited degree, and you'll be using a walker typically. But with both, you're generally able to place as much weight on that implant or that extremity as you want.

But like you mentioned, the first few months, the improvement is very rapid. So week to week, you see a significant improvement.

The improvement after those first few months is a little more subtle. So you may not notice dramatic changes like you do early after surgery, but it will continue to improve, and you gain more confidence in it, and you think about it less as time goes by.

But most people kind of describe the first six weeks as the majority of the recovery, so that's really the time frame when the focus is on avoidance of complications. So blood clot, infection, things like that.

How Do I Take Care of My Joint Implant?

Interviewer: Wow. So after the first year, the body is healed up, we've made sure that the wounds are not getting infected, we're not getting clots, etc., but now we have a piece of hardware in our body. What do we have to do to make sure that we're taking care of the implant and make sure that we get as long of a use out of that implant as possible?

Prevent Infection

Dr. Archibeck: There are several things that are important to know. So one is how do these things fail? And there's a little bit of a difference with knee replacement and hip replacement, but in general, they can still fail by infection. So, obviously, that's a life-altering event if it occurs.

And generally, it's felt that that is caused by a remote infection that then enters the bloodstream and finds its way to the joint replacement. So, unfortunately, a chunk of metal like a hip and knee replacement is always more susceptible to infection than a native healthy joint.

Keep Up on Dental Work

So you just want to take generally good care of yourself. Keep your dental work up to date. That can be a potential source of infection.

Interviewer: Really? Dental work?

Dr. Archibeck: Yeah. In the past, they used to recommend antibiotics prior to any dental work, and that still is a bit of a controversial topic, but that's not felt to be absolutely necessary unless you're high risk or have multiple joint replacements. But again, that's a topic you'll get different opinions about.

Any other bacterial infections, so common ones would include urinary tract infection, skin infections on that leg or other areas, obviously sinusitis, pneumonia. As you typically would if those things develop, you just want to be diligent about getting them looked at and treated, and more so if you have prosthetic joints.

I mean, obviously, we're talking about hip and knee, but there are elbow replacements, ankle replacements, and others. So any bacterial infection can potentially go to those areas. So just kind of taking good care of yourself like you generally would.

Avoid Repetitive, High-Impact Exercise

Implants can wear out. So, luckily, hip and knee replacements, the materials that we use have significantly improved over time over the last couple of decades. And so, even at 20 years, most are still functioning well, but they do wear and tear.

So a few things you can do in that regard. It's generally recommended that you avoid repetitive, high-impact activities, such as running, for exercise or aggressive cutting and pivoting sports. Things like walking, hiking, biking, swimming, golfing, dancing, most people feel like skiing is fine, are all activities that are absolutely fine to do and don't need to be limited at all. You can do as much as you want.

Then there are those in-betweeners, like tennis, pickleball, skiing, where some of those the risk is more the risk of a fall. But generally speaking, those activities are felt to be okay too, just avoiding the really high-intensity cutting and pivoting type things.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

The other thing that can help add to the longevity of an implant is maintaining a good body weight. So it's been shown that the risk of wear and tear . . . and by that, I mean the plastic can wear or parts can loosen. The risk of those issues arising increase a bit as your BMI, or body mass index, increases. So trying to maintain a good body weight is helpful. Avoiding high-impact activities.

And then another rare cause of failure would be an injury of some type. So the implants themselves are very durable. But obviously, the bone adjacent to the implant can be susceptible to fracture or injury.

Especially as you get into your advanced years, being careful to avoid situations that might put you at risk for a fall or an injury, making sure your home is safe in regards to no obstacles on the floor or edges of rugs, and just kind of doing your best to minimize the risk of a fall. A fracture around an implant obviously is considered a failure and typically requires surgery to correct.

How Long Do Joint Implants Last?

With that being said, though, like I mentioned, when patients ask, "How long do these things last?" we give a relatively simple answer, like, "Hopefully 15 to 20 years." But to be honest, even at those intervals of time, the vast majority are still functioning well. Yeah, they're pretty durable implants.

Interviewer: What I'm hearing is after you get your joint replacement, if you take care of your body, your health, your weight, and so on, that your implant can last as long as 15 to 20 years?

Follow up With Your Provider

Dr. Archibeck: Yeah, I think that's fair to say. The other thing that I should mention is that even if a joint replacement is functioning well, it's wise to see your physician. And recommendations vary, but I would say probably about every five years.

So the first year, there's a regimen of post-op visits. Usually two weeks, six weeks, maybe three months, a year. After that, though, we usually let patients go for a while. And it's wise, though, to return and get an X-ray and be evaluated, I would say, anywhere from every five to ten years.

The reason being is that there are things that can occur with the hip replacement or knee replacement that aren't always painful. So if you get a little bit of plastic wear, that might be something that we would be able to see on X-ray, but may not be a painful problem.

And sometimes, if caught early enough, the solution to that issue is relatively simple. If caught late, when it's maybe resulted in loosening of an implant, it can be a much more problematic issue to correct.

So routine follow-up, even after that first year, is wise. Especially as you get to the 15- to 20-year interval of time since surgery, then it becomes even more important because that's about when our concern kind of increases a little bit in regards to the risk of some of these wear-and-tear type mechanisms of failure.

Pay Attention to Your Joint Replacement

The other thing that's worth mentioning is beyond just having it last a long time, obviously all patients want it to be as comfortable and functional as possible. And it's true that a hip replacement and a knee replacement probably will never feel like a totally normal joint, but the closer we can get it to that, the better.

And typically, hip replacements, for whatever reason, seem to approximate a normal hip more closely than a knee replacement. In other words, it's much more common to have some residual symptoms with a knee replacement.

But the most common reasons we see patients back who maybe had a knee replacement or a hip replacement five years ago, 10 years ago, and just somehow, again, feel concerned that it's not as comfortable as possible, or as they were hoping it would be, include weakness.

So that early post-op time frame, like we mentioned, it's important to work on strengthening. Maintaining that strength is equally as important to allow that hip or knee to function as good as it possibly can.

Again, maintaining a good body weight. It's been shown that if your BMI kind of creeps up a little bit, sometimes the patient's satisfaction level with their replacement decreases. So even though it's not intuitive that that would be the case, maintain a good body weight, maintain good strength.

And obviously, if it really seems like something is wrong, if it's painful and it seems to be not resolving or worsening, then you definitely want to see your physician to kind of rule out any concerning findings.

But again, continuing with those strengthening exercises, maintaining a good body weight, those things can help the joint replacement function most effectively for a long period of time.

Quality of Life After Joint Replacement

Interviewer: Now, going back to that idea of satisfaction, if a patient gets a replacement and is able to take care of it for those 15, 20, or more years, what kind of improvements in quality of life can they expect after receiving a joint replacement?

Dr. Archibeck: That's a good question. The good news is that the vast majority of patients, even though they may have some residual symptoms, feel as though they're dramatically improved when compared to their status preoperatively.

So like I mentioned, it's often the younger patients that maybe notice the limitations or the shortcomings of joint replacement because of maybe their demands of it or their expectations of it.

Because they're just by nature more active, they may notice those limitations a little more than a very elderly patient that maybe isn't as active. Those patients often feel like, "Hey, this does feel pretty normal to me," whereas, maybe the younger, more active patient feels that they're still a little limited by it.

But like I mentioned, most patients, younger or older, generally feel significantly improved after surgery.

And as I mentioned earlier, they should expect to be able to participate in those activities that I mentioned without significant pain: walking, hiking, biking, swimming, things like that. The more demanding activity is, so things like stairs, squatting, walking up or downhill, long hikes, it's not uncommon to still maybe develop a little fatigue or a little ache in the joint. And those things, unfortunately, may persist.

So, with knee replacement, it's been estimated that about 15% to 20% of patients continue to have some degree of what they describe as pain, even though most patients are still very satisfied. Hip replacements, it's a little less. So maybe 5% to 10% of patients still have occasional pain. So, yeah, unfortunately, not a totally normal joint, but definitely typically a significant improvement.

Although the things that I mentioned, like infection or injury, are extremely scary and worrisome, they are very, very rare. And most people do very well after hip or knee replacement in regards to a significant improvement in their quality of life, both in regards to the level of pain that they have as well as their level of function and the activities that they're able to participate in.