What’s on this page?
- Making the decision to have surgery
- The benefits of surgery
- The risks of surgery
- Reasons why you may not be able to have surgery
- What to expect after your surgery
- Making an informed decision
- Questions to ask your surgeon
Please note this is largely adapted from the Arthritis Care Booklet “Surgery and arthritis”. The full booklet can be downloaded at: https://www.arthritiscare.org.uk/do-i-have-arthritis/publications/224-surgery-and-arthritis
Many people with arthritis find that having surgery brings about a dramatic reduction in their pain and an improvement in their mobility and quality of life. A wide range of types of surgery can help people with arthritis, from small procedures (such as operations to remove cysts or nodules), to major surgery (which includes total joint replacement).
As drug treatments are continually improving, many people with arthritis will never need to have surgery. Some people can effectively manage their condition through their medication and lifestyle.
Therefore the decision to have surgery is usually only made after other treatment options have been explored. You should find out as much as you can about the different procedures before weighing up the pros and cons with your doctor. As with all operations, there can be risks and complications in having surgery for arthritis, such as infection or the operation being unsuccessful.
As a person with arthritis you may consider having surgery if:
● your pain is severely affecting your quality of life
● a joint is severely damaged
● you are struggling to carry out daily activities, such as dressing, shopping and working.
Joint replacements are usually very successful at relieving pain. The degree to which movement may improve will depend on how severe your arthritis is and how strong the muscles are surrounding your joints. Some people need surgery to prevent their arthritis getting worse. A joint that is not operated on may become stiffer, deformed and the muscle around the joint may be weakened, which could make an operation in the future more difficult.
The decision to have surgery will be made by you with advice from your consultant. Find out as much as you can so that you have all the information you need to make a decision. You will need to assess the risks and complications involved in the surgery and weigh them up against the benefits of having the operation (see below).
Joint replacements are very successful operations and should last at least 10-15 years before revision surgery is needed. The success of surgery will depend in part on how well you look after your joint. Revision surgery may not be as successful as the original replacement. Bear in mind that you will have to exercise your new joint to keep the muscles around it strong, but you will be careful to not overstrain your joint.
How long a new joint will last will depend on the type of procedure used, which joint is replaced and your age and lifestyle, so discuss this with your doctor.
The benefits of surgery should be a decrease in pain and improved mobility. Surgery can also prevent joints deteriorating further and prevent disability.
There may be total pain relief in the area that has been operated on, once any discomfort from the operation itself has cleared. However, improvement to the movement of the joint after the operation can be difficult to predict and depends on many factors including the extent of the deterioration of the joint before surgery, the strength of muscles surrounding the joint and the success of the operation itself. Re-aligning joints can make them easier to use and can improve appearance which may make you feel better about yourself.
Many people find that, with less pain and improved movement, they are able to do more, giving a boost to their independence. Most people are able to go back to work once they have recovered from their operation. Daily activities, such as dressing or housework, are often easier to do after surgery. You may find it easier to use public transport or get back to driving a car once you have fully recovered from an operation.
Exercise and health
As a result of improved movement and reduced pain, you may find that you can take up exercise that you could not do before surgery. Exercise is an essential part of managing arthritis as it can help to build muscle to support joints, maintain a healthy weight and relax – all of which can have a positive effect on arthritis as well as your general health. Lifestyle improvements and reduced pain can benefit your mental and emotional well-being, and give a boost to your self-confidence.
Social life and relationships
People often find that they can lead a more active social life after having surgery. You may feel less dependent on your family, and less tense and irritable. When you are in pain you may not want to be touched, which can create distance in relationships. Reduced pain can lead to great improvements in close personal relationships.
Like any operation, surgery for arthritis has risks. You should ask your surgeon about the risks of a particular procedure. They should give you enough information so you can make an informed choice about having surgery.
You also need to bear in mind that replacement joints may have limitations and do not last forever. It is likely that there will be a waiting list for surgery for arthritis. You need to prepare yourself for time in hospital and time out of work. Moreover recovery can be painful and require effort – it may be a while before you are happy with the outcome of surgery.
There is a small risk of infection during the operation. If this is a minor infection then it can usually be cleared up with antibiotics. If the infection is deep, you may require revision surgery, or your replacement may have to be taken out. It is estimated that a deep infection will occur in less than one per cent of people who have a knee or hip joint replacement.
Having surgery to your lower limbs can bring with it the risk of a blood clot in the leg (venous thrombosis), causing pain and swelling in the leg. This condition is usually temporary, but can be more serious if a bit of the clot breaks off and travels to the lungs
Another relatively uncommon risk is damage to the ligaments, arteries or nerves around a joint. This may settle spontaneously or can be addressed during the surgery or in further surgery.
Having a joint replacement is major surgery so if you have any other medical conditions, such as heart disease, lung problems, infection or very active arthritis, surgery may put too much strain on your body. You should discuss this with your doctor.
Any infections, such as an ulcer or foot infection, must have cleared up before surgery as these can spread to the site of the operation and cause complications.
If you are overweight, surgery may not be recommended because the extra weight puts more pressure on the body and can make recovery slower. This also means more strain on your heart, lungs and kidneys, which will be under pressure during an operation. It may also not be advisable to have a general anaesthetic if you are overweight.
Ask your consultant what degree of movement and function they realistically expect you to have after your operation. But bear in mind there is still a risk that your operation may not be as successful as you had hoped. In very rare cases, operations may fail altogether.
Some people still have problems moving after a joint replacement or revision surgery. If you have a full knee replacement there may be some clicking or clunking in the replacement. The device can also loosen. The scar on the knee after a knee replacement may be uncomfortable to lean on or when stretched.
Hip replacements can become dislocated soon after surgery. This can be painful but is uncommon. Before you leave hospital you should be given exercises by your team of health professionals and taught what kind of movements you should avoid to prevent dislocation. If it does dislocate, the hip may need to be put back into place under anaesthetic. More common is loosening of the artificial hip after 10-15 years, and revision surgery may be needed to correct this.
Talk to your doctor if you are considering trying to lose weight.
You need to get a clear picture from your consultant about how much they expect you will be able to do once you have recovered from surgery. For example, you could get them to demonstrate how much you will be able to bend your knee, what activities you should be able to do free from pain, and what pain levels you might experience.
You may want to ask your surgeon about their levels of experience and success rates for the operation. If you are having a more specific procedure, like an operation on your hand or ankle, make sure it is performed by a surgeon who specialises in that area.
You will also need to think about how you will manage after the operation. It is likely that you will need some support from family, friends or a carer, which you should organise beforehand.
1. How often do you do this operation?
2. What are your results?
3. What is the infection rate? (This should be around one per cent or less)
4. How long will my new joint last? (You should not need a revision in the first 10-15 years)
5. What is the risk of dislocation? (For a hip joint this should be less than two per cent)
6. What can I expect after the operation?
7. How will I know if it has been a success?
8. What should I do if it isn’t?
9. What can I do to help my recovery?
10. How soon before I can drive/go back to work?
11. What follow-up treatment will I receive?
12. What will happen if I don’t have surgery?
13. What is the long-term outcome of this operation/type of implant?
14. Will you deal with complications or will I get referred to someone else?
15. Will I need any physiotherapy or occupational therapy after surgery?
16. Do you have any written information about the operation that I could have?