If it hasn’t happened to you, it probably has happened to someone you know….the doctor tells him or her that they need a knee or hip joint replacement if they want to continue to have a good quality of life. According to the CDC, there are more than 700,000 knee replacements each year in the US and more than 300,000 hip replacements.
Why these rising numbers? We all know that people are living longer, and perhaps different parts of our body age faster than others. The basic news is that “things wear out.”
Unfortunately, wearing out applies to the artificial knees and joints as well, and doctors now recommend that we try to alleviate pain in these joints with non surgical methods first. Of course, if your pain or limited ability to get around is severe, artificial joints are a godsend and should not be postponed. I remember hearing tennis great Billie Jean King say that she is sorry she waited so long to get knee replacement; the new knees greatly enhanced her mobility and enjoyment of life. But if you can postpone the surgery…usually so you won’t have to have it again when you are much older…it is recommended that you try other things first.
For example, lifestyle changes can reduce pain and improve flexibility. Pain-relieving drugs like acetaminophen are helpful as well. This can be taken long term without risk, according to Betty Lim MD, a geriatrician and palliative medicine specialist at Mt. Sinai hospital in New York. If pain is severe, other drugs may be recommended but one must consider risk versus benefits as well.
Non-drug therapies like acupuncture, heat, ice and massage are also helpful in preserving range of motion and flexibility. But perhaps the most important therapy, according to news from Mt. Sinai hospital, is to stay active. Exercise that keeps the muscles around the joints strong is very important as it is the muscles that keep the joints supported.
Stretching through yoga and Pilates and even walking can help keep that range of motion so important with these joints. Swimming is another ideal exercise for people with pain as it relieves the weight bearing on the joints while you are in the water. And don’t forget resistance training with weights. Again, anything that stretches and supports the joints keeps replacement surgery further away.
Lastly, as you probably guessed, losing weight if you are overweight is most important. Anything that lessens the stress on the load bearing joints will help slow the progress of the arthritis that is causing the pain. Weight loss, even as little as 5 percent of total weight, can ease discomfort.
You may not be able to postpone joint replacement forever, but slowing the progress of the pain and stiffness should be the first approach. Eat a healthy diet, take pain meds as needed and keep moving. And postpone that “doctor will see you now” as long as you can.