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Arthritis: Should I Have Knee Replacement Surgery


What is a Decision Point?

Decision Point

Arthritis: Should I Have Knee Replacement Surgery?

You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Arthritis: Should I Have Knee Replacement Surgery?

Get the facts

Your options

  • Have surgery to replace your knee.
  • Don't have this surgery. Instead, use other treatments, like exercise, medicines, or another type of surgery, such as arthroscopy.

Key points to remember

  • The decision you and your doctor make depends on your age, health, and activity level, and on how much pain and disability you have.
  • Most people have knee replacement only when they can no longer control arthritis pain with medicine and other treatments and when the pain really interferes with their lives.
  • Rehabilitation after knee replacement requires daily exercises for several weeks.
  • Most knee replacements last for at least 15 years. Some people need to have the knee replaced again.
FAQs

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a problem with the cartilage in joints. Over time, the cartilage breaks down until the bones, which were once separated by cartilage, rub against each other. This causes damage to tissue and bone. The symptoms of osteoarthritis include joint pain, stiffness after inactivity, and limited motion.

What is knee replacement surgery?

Knee replacement surgery may be used when there is knee pain and disability from damage that can be seen on X-rays.

The surgeon covers the ends of the damaged thighbone and lower leg bone, and usually the kneecap, with artificial (man-made) surfaces that are lined with metal and plastic. The artificial pieces are cemented to the bones.

Rehabilitation, or rehab, is usually intense after surgery. Most people start to walk with a walker or crutches the day after surgery and begin physical therapy right away. Your doctor may advise you to ride a stationary bike to strengthen your leg muscles and improve how well you can bend your knee. Rehab will take several weeks, but you should be able to start walking, climbing stairs, sitting in and getting up from chairs, and doing other daily activities within a few days.

Surgery is only for people with severe osteoarthritis who do not get pain relief from medicine, home treatment, or other methods and who have lost a lot of cartilage. Surgery relieves severe, disabling pain and may restore the knee's ability to work properly.

What other surgeries are used to treat osteoarthritis?

Besides knee replacement, the other types of surgeries used are:

Arthroscopy

This surgery can provide short-term relief of symptoms. Sometimes the relief lasts a long time. It can also fix a knee that becomes "locked" or stuck because of loose cartilage or bone fragments.

Osteotomy

This surgery corrects knee problems such as bowleg and knock-knee. It is usually done for younger, active people who have mild arthritis and who want to delay knee replacement.

Arthrodesis

This is surgery that joins (fuses) two bones in a diseased joint so that the joint can no longer move. It is rarely used in the knees, but it may be a treatment choice in cases of severe osteoarthritis in a young person who cannot have total knee replacement.

What other treatments are available?

There are a number of treatments for arthritis in the knee that don't involve surgery:

  • Medicine. If your pain is mild, you may only need pain medicines that you can buy without a prescription. Stronger medicines that are used to treat osteoarthritis include:
    • Steroid injections.
    • Hyaluronan injections.
    • Opioids.
  • Ice or heat. Heat may help you loosen up your joints before an activity. Ice is a good pain reliever after activity or exercise.
  • Exercise. Exercise helps because it makes your muscles stronger, which lowers the stress on your knees. But make sure to talk to your doctor about what kind of activity is best for you.
  • Physical therapy or occupational therapy.
  • Walking aids. There are many devices you can use to take some of the stress off of your knee. These include crutches, walkers, braces, and tape. Wedged insoles or cushioned shoes may help redistribute weight and take some of the stress off of your knee.

What are the risks of knee replacement surgery?

Most people have much less pain after knee replacement surgery and are able to return to many of their activities. But as with any surgery, there are some risks, including:

  • Lack of good range of motion. After surgery, some people can't bend their knee far enough to do their daily activities, even after several weeks. Medicine may help.
  • Dislocated kneecap. If this happens, the kneecap may move to one side of the knee, and it will "pop" back when you bend your knee. It usually needs to be treated with another surgery. But this problem is not common.
  • Blood clots. These can be dangerous if they block blood flow from the leg back to the heart or move to the lungs. They are more common in older people, those who are very overweight, those who have had blood clots before, and those who have cancer.
  • Wound-healing problems. These are more common in people who take steroid medicines or who have diseases that affect the immune system, such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. People who have any sort of artificial material in their bodies, including artificial joints, have a risk of infection around the material. But infection is rare. There is also a small risk of infection with any surgery.
  • Instability in the joint. The knee may be unstable or wobbly if the replacement parts are not properly aligned. You may need a second surgery to align the parts correctly so that your knee is stable.
  • The usual risks of general anesthesia. Problems from anesthesia are not common, especially in people who are in good health overall. But all anesthesia has some risk.

Why might your doctor recommend knee replacement surgery?

Your doctor might recommend knee replacement if:

  • You have very bad arthritis pain, and other treatments have not helped.
  • You have lost a large amount of cartilage.
  • You don't have health problems that would make it dangerous for you to have surgery.

Compare your options

Compare

What is usually involved?









What are the benefits?









What are the risks and side effects?









Have knee replacement surgery Have knee replacement surgery
  • You may be asleep during this surgery. Or you may be awake but numb from the waist down.
  • You will stay in the hospital for several days.
  • You will need several weeks of physical therapy.
  • Most people have much less pain and are able to do many of their daily activities more easily.
  • Risks include:
    • A blood clot.
    • Infection or wound-healing problems.
    • Instability in the joint.
    • Dislocated kneecap.
    • The usual risks of general anesthesia.
  • Possible side effects:
    • Your knee won't bend as far as it did before you started having knee problems.
    • You may need to avoid activities that put a lot of stress on the joint, like running or playing tennis.
    • You may eventually need another replacement, because the artificial joint can wear out.
Try other treatment Try other treatment
  • You can try exercise, medicines, joint injections, or, in some cases, another type of surgery, such as arthroscopy.
  • You can try using crutches, braces, and other types of walking support to help ease the stress on your knee.
  • You avoid the risks and side effects of surgery.
  • You avoid months of physical therapy, although exercise is still important.
  • The strong medicines used for severe pain may cause constipation, mental confusion, drowsiness, and nausea and vomiting.
  • Steroid injections can cause mood swings, nervousness, insomnia, and other side effects.
  • There are no bad effects from home treatments such as staying at a healthy weight, exercising, and using heat and cold therapy.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about knee replacement surgery for osteoarthritis

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

I've skied competitively since I was 6 years old. In my 20s, I had several knee injuries and surgeries. About 7 years ago, I started having a lot of pain in one knee, and my doctor said the only surgery left to do was to replace the knee. If I have the knee replaced, I won't be able to ski or run or do anything that puts a lot of stress on it. I can't do any of those things now because of the pain anyway. I don't know how I'm going to deal with that, since being an athlete has always been a big part of who I am. I'm worried about having my knee replaced when I'm so young, but with the amount of pain I'm having, I don't see any other choice.

Chuck, age 45

The pain in my knees, especially my left one, has gotten steadily worse in the last 20 years. The medicines just weren't working. It got so bad last year that I gave up on my flower garden. My doctor and I discussed knee replacement, but I consider that my last resort. My doctor and I developed a plan of swimming and healthy eating habits that will help me take off these extra weight I've put on. We agree that's the best thing I can do to keep my osteoarthritis from getting worse. We're going to try some different medicines too.

Esmerelda, age 61

I feel like I'm too young to have my knee replaced. But I definitely need something other than Tylenol for the pain. I asked my doctor about my other options. She said we can try joint injections and see how that works. I can always have the surgery later if I need it, but I'd sure like to put it off for as long as I can. I'll see if these joint injections make the pain better. My doctor says that as long as I can handle the pain, we can hold off on the surgery.

George, age 57

I was an avid tennis player for years, and it finally caught up with my knees. I had an osteotomy years ago, and it helped for a while. But now so much of my time is focused on the pain. I'm an active grandmother with no intention of missing out on my grandkids' activities. I know that surgery will mean a long period of exercising and rehabilitation, but it will be worth it to lose this stiffness and discomfort.

Jean, age 71

What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to have knee replacement surgery

Reasons not to have knee replacement surgery

I want to be able to do low-impact activities, such as swimming and golf, as well as chores and housework.

My knee doesn't really get in the way of the physical activities I like or need to do.

More important
Equally important
More important

I have more bad days than good.

I have more good days than bad.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the chance of needing another replacement surgery later in life.

I'm worried about needing another surgery in 10 or 20 years.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm ready and willing to do several weeks of physical therapy after the surgery.

I don't want, or I won't be able, to have several weeks of physical therapy.

More important
Equally important
More important

I know that problems sometimes occur with surgery, but getting pain relief and getting back some use of my knee is worth the risk.

I'm very worried about problems from surgery.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Having knee replacement surgery

NOT having knee replacement

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1.

Knee replacement surgery should be my first choice if I have osteoarthritis of the knee.

  • YesSorry, that's not correct. Knee replacement surgery should be considered only when other treatments-such as exercise, medicines, physical therapy, and a change in your daily activities-haven't worked to ease your symptoms.
  • NoYou're right. Knee replacement surgery should be considered only when other treatments-such as exercise, medicines, physical therapy, and a change in your daily activities-haven't worked to ease your symptoms.
  • I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Key points to remember." Knee replacement surgery should be considered only when other treatments haven't worked to ease your symptoms.
2.

I will be able to return to all my normal activities right after I have this surgery.

  • YesSorry, that's not correct. Rehabilitation after knee replacement surgery is usually intense and requires daily exercises for several weeks.
  • NoYou are right. Rehabilitation after knee replacement surgery is usually intense and requires daily exercises for several weeks.
  • I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "What is knee replacement surgery?" Rehabilitation after knee replacement surgery is usually intense and requires daily exercises for several weeks.
3.

Although most surgeries last for at least 15 years, I may need to have my knee replaced again.

  • YesYou are right. More than 90% of knee replacement surgeries last for at least 15 years. But some people do need to have another replacement later.
  • NoSorry, that's not right. More than 90% of knee replacement surgeries last for at least 15 years. But some people do need to have another replacement later.
  • I'm not sureIt may help to go back and read "Key points to remember." More than 90% of knee replacement surgeries last for at least 15 years. But some people do need to have another replacement later.

Decide what's next

1.

Do you understand the options available to you?

2.

Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3.

Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1.

How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure
3.

Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

Your Summary

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.

Your decision

Next steps

Which way you're leaning

How sure you are

Your comments

Your knowledge of the facts

Key concepts that you understood

Key concepts that may need review

Getting ready to act

Patient choices

Credits

Credits
CreditsHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerStanford M. Shoor, MD - Rheumatology
You may want to have a say in this decision, or you may simply want to follow your doctor's recommendation. Either way, this information will help you understand what your choices are so that you can talk to your doctor about them.

Arthritis: Should I Have Knee Replacement Surgery?

Here's a record of your answers. You can use it to talk with your doctor or loved ones about your decision.
  1. Get the facts
  2. Compare your options
  3. What matters most to you?
  4. Where are you leaning now?
  5. What else do you need to make your decision?

1. Get the facts

Your options

  • Have surgery to replace your knee.
  • Don't have this surgery. Instead, use other treatments, like exercise, medicines, or another type of surgery, such as arthroscopy.

Key points to remember

  • The decision you and your doctor make depends on your age, health, and activity level, and on how much pain and disability you have.
  • Most people have knee replacement only when they can no longer control arthritis pain with medicine and other treatments and when the pain really interferes with their lives.
  • Rehabilitation after knee replacement requires daily exercises for several weeks.
  • Most knee replacements last for at least 15 years. Some people need to have the knee replaced again.
FAQs

What is osteoarthritis?

Osteoarthritis is a problem with the cartilage in joints. Over time, the cartilage breaks down until the bones, which were once separated by cartilage, rub against each other. This causes damage to tissue and bone. The symptoms of osteoarthritis include joint pain, stiffness after inactivity, and limited motion.

What is knee replacement surgery?

Knee replacement surgery may be used when there is knee pain and disability from damage that can be seen on X-rays.

The surgeon covers the ends of the damaged thighbone and lower leg bone, and usually the kneecap, with artificial (man-made) surfaces that are lined with metal and plastic. The artificial pieces are cemented to the bones.

Rehabilitation, or rehab, is usually intense after surgery. Most people start to walk with a walker or crutches the day after surgery and begin physical therapy right away. Your doctor may advise you to ride a stationary bike to strengthen your leg muscles and improve how well you can bend your knee. Rehab will take several weeks, but you should be able to start walking, climbing stairs, sitting in and getting up from chairs, and doing other daily activities within a few days.

Surgery is only for people with severe osteoarthritis who do not get pain relief from medicine, home treatment, or other methods and who have lost a lot of cartilage. Surgery relieves severe, disabling pain and may restore the knee's ability to work properly.

What other surgeries are used to treat osteoarthritis?

Besides knee replacement, the other types of surgeries used are:

Arthroscopy

This surgery can provide short-term relief of symptoms. Sometimes the relief lasts a long time. It can also fix a knee that becomes "locked" or stuck because of loose cartilage or bone fragments.

Osteotomy

This surgery corrects knee problems such as bowleg and knock-knee. It is usually done for younger, active people who have mild arthritis and who want to delay knee replacement.

Arthrodesis

This is surgery that joins (fuses) two bones in a diseased joint so that the joint can no longer move. It is rarely used in the knees, but it may be a treatment choice in cases of severe osteoarthritis in a young person who cannot have total knee replacement.

What other treatments are available?

There are a number of treatments for arthritis in the knee that don't involve surgery:

  • Medicine. If your pain is mild, you may only need pain medicines that you can buy without a prescription. Stronger medicines that are used to treat osteoarthritis include:
    • Steroid injections.
    • Hyaluronan injections.
    • Opioids.
  • Ice or heat. Heat may help you loosen up your joints before an activity. Ice is a good pain reliever after activity or exercise.
  • Exercise. Exercise helps because it makes your muscles stronger, which lowers the stress on your knees. But make sure to talk to your doctor about what kind of activity is best for you.
  • Physical therapy or occupational therapy.
  • Walking aids. There are many devices you can use to take some of the stress off of your knee. These include crutches, walkers, braces, and tape. Wedged insoles or cushioned shoes may help redistribute weight and take some of the stress off of your knee.

What are the risks of knee replacement surgery?

Most people have much less pain after knee replacement surgery and are able to return to many of their activities. But as with any surgery, there are some risks, including:

  • Lack of good range of motion. After surgery, some people can't bend their knee far enough to do their daily activities, even after several weeks. Medicine may help.
  • Dislocated kneecap. If this happens, the kneecap may move to one side of the knee, and it will "pop" back when you bend your knee. It usually needs to be treated with another surgery. But this problem is not common.
  • Blood clots. These can be dangerous if they block blood flow from the leg back to the heart or move to the lungs. They are more common in older people, those who are very overweight, those who have had blood clots before, and those who have cancer.
  • Wound-healing problems. These are more common in people who take steroid medicines or who have diseases that affect the immune system, such as rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes. People who have any sort of artificial material in their bodies, including artificial joints, have a risk of infection around the material. But infection is rare. There is also a small risk of infection with any surgery.
  • Instability in the joint. The knee may be unstable or wobbly if the replacement parts are not properly aligned. You may need a second surgery to align the parts correctly so that your knee is stable.
  • The usual risks of general anesthesia. Problems from anesthesia are not common, especially in people who are in good health overall. But all anesthesia has some risk.

Why might your doctor recommend knee replacement surgery?

Your doctor might recommend knee replacement if:

  • You have very bad arthritis pain, and other treatments have not helped.
  • You have lost a large amount of cartilage.
  • You don't have health problems that would make it dangerous for you to have surgery.

2. Compare your options

Have knee replacement surgery Try other treatment
What is usually involved?
  • You may be asleep during this surgery. Or you may be awake but numb from the waist down.
  • You will stay in the hospital for several days.
  • You will need several weeks of physical therapy.
  • You can try exercise, medicines, joint injections, or, in some cases, another type of surgery, such as arthroscopy.
  • You can try using crutches, braces, and other types of walking support to help ease the stress on your knee.
What are the benefits?
  • Most people have much less pain and are able to do many of their daily activities more easily.
  • You avoid the risks and side effects of surgery.
  • You avoid months of physical therapy, although exercise is still important.
What are the risks and side effects?
  • Risks include:
    • A blood clot.
    • Infection or wound-healing problems.
    • Instability in the joint.
    • Dislocated kneecap.
    • The usual risks of general anesthesia.
  • Possible side effects:
    • Your knee won't bend as far as it did before you started having knee problems.
    • You may need to avoid activities that put a lot of stress on the joint, like running or playing tennis.
    • You may eventually need another replacement, because the artificial joint can wear out.
  • The strong medicines used for severe pain may cause constipation, mental confusion, drowsiness, and nausea and vomiting.
  • Steroid injections can cause mood swings, nervousness, insomnia, and other side effects.
  • There are no bad effects from home treatments such as staying at a healthy weight, exercising, and using heat and cold therapy.

Personal stories

Are you interested in what others decided to do? Many people have faced this decision. These personal stories may help you decide.

Personal stories about knee replacement surgery for osteoarthritis

These stories are based on information gathered from health professionals and consumers. They may be helpful as you make important health decisions.

"I've skied competitively since I was 6 years old. In my 20s, I had several knee injuries and surgeries. About 7 years ago, I started having a lot of pain in one knee, and my doctor said the only surgery left to do was to replace the knee. If I have the knee replaced, I won't be able to ski or run or do anything that puts a lot of stress on it. I can't do any of those things now because of the pain anyway. I don't know how I'm going to deal with that, since being an athlete has always been a big part of who I am. I'm worried about having my knee replaced when I'm so young, but with the amount of pain I'm having, I don't see any other choice."

— Chuck, age 45

"The pain in my knees, especially my left one, has gotten steadily worse in the last 20 years. The medicines just weren't working. It got so bad last year that I gave up on my flower garden. My doctor and I discussed knee replacement, but I consider that my last resort. My doctor and I developed a plan of swimming and healthy eating habits that will help me take off these extra weight I've put on. We agree that's the best thing I can do to keep my osteoarthritis from getting worse. We're going to try some different medicines too."

— Esmerelda, age 61

"I feel like I'm too young to have my knee replaced. But I definitely need something other than Tylenol for the pain. I asked my doctor about my other options. She said we can try joint injections and see how that works. I can always have the surgery later if I need it, but I'd sure like to put it off for as long as I can. I'll see if these joint injections make the pain better. My doctor says that as long as I can handle the pain, we can hold off on the surgery."

— George, age 57

"I was an avid tennis player for years, and it finally caught up with my knees. I had an osteotomy years ago, and it helped for a while. But now so much of my time is focused on the pain. I'm an active grandmother with no intention of missing out on my grandkids' activities. I know that surgery will mean a long period of exercising and rehabilitation, but it will be worth it to lose this stiffness and discomfort."

— Jean, age 71

3. What matters most to you?

Your personal feelings are just as important as the medical facts. Think about what matters most to you in this decision, and show how you feel about the following statements.

Reasons to have knee replacement surgery

Reasons not to have knee replacement surgery

I want to be able to do low-impact activities, such as swimming and golf, as well as chores and housework.

My knee doesn't really get in the way of the physical activities I like or need to do.

More important
Equally important
More important

I have more bad days than good.

I have more good days than bad.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm not worried about the chance of needing another replacement surgery later in life.

I'm worried about needing another surgery in 10 or 20 years.

More important
Equally important
More important

I'm ready and willing to do several weeks of physical therapy after the surgery.

I don't want, or I won't be able, to have several weeks of physical therapy.

More important
Equally important
More important

I know that problems sometimes occur with surgery, but getting pain relief and getting back some use of my knee is worth the risk.

I'm very worried about problems from surgery.

More important
Equally important
More important

My other important reasons:

My other important reasons:

More important
Equally important
More important

4. Where are you leaning now?

Now that you've thought about the facts and your feelings, you may have a general idea of where you stand on this decision. Show which way you are leaning right now.

Having knee replacement surgery

NOT having knee replacement

Leaning toward
Undecided
Leaning toward

5. What else do you need to make your decision?

Check the facts

1. Knee replacement surgery should be my first choice if I have osteoarthritis of the knee.

  • Yes
  • No
  • I'm not sure
You're right. Knee replacement surgery should be considered only when other treatments-such as exercise, medicines, physical therapy, and a change in your daily activities-haven't worked to ease your symptoms.

2. I will be able to return to all my normal activities right after I have this surgery.

  • Yes
  • No
  • I'm not sure
You are right. Rehabilitation after knee replacement surgery is usually intense and requires daily exercises for several weeks.

3. Although most surgeries last for at least 15 years, I may need to have my knee replaced again.

  • Yes
  • No
  • I'm not sure
You are right. More than 90% of knee replacement surgeries last for at least 15 years. But some people do need to have another replacement later.

Decide what's next

1. Do you understand the options available to you?

2. Are you clear about which benefits and side effects matter most to you?

3. Do you have enough support and advice from others to make a choice?

Certainty

1. How sure do you feel right now about your decision?

Not sure at all
Somewhat sure
Very sure

2. Check what you need to do before you make this decision.

  • I'm ready to take action.
  • I want to discuss the options with others.
  • I want to learn more about my options.

3. Use the following space to list questions, concerns, and next steps.

Credits
ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerAnne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerStanford M. Shoor, MD - Rheumatology

Note: The "printer friendly" document will not contain all the information available in the online document some Information (e.g. cross-references to other topics, definitions or medical illustrations) is only available in the online version.

Last Revised: April 9, 2011

Author: Healthwise Staff

Medical Review: Anne C. Poinier, MD - Internal Medicine & Stanford M. Shoor, MD - Rheumatology


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