At 42, Sally Seeley was barely able to walk. Diagnosed with osteoarthritis in
her late 20s, she tried a range of treatments from water aerobics to Vioxx. But
her condition only got worse. Finally, an orthopedic surgeon recommended total
hip replacement. She worried that she was too young for such surgery, but she
just couldn’t stand the discomfort any longer. "The pain was gone immediately,"
says Seeley, now 49. Three months ago, she had her right hip done; she’s already
back at work.
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 50s 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 Dr. Edwin Su, an
orthopedic surgeon at the 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-replacement 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. The surgery lasts at least two hours and requires
general anesthesia. Artificial knees generally last from 10 to 15 years. Hips
are the second most commonly replaced joints, followed by shoulders…