SALT LAKE CITY — Many Americans dealing with joints that creak louder than rickety stairs are turning to surgery and replacements as the answer to their woes, but many experts agree that replacement surgery is not only straining the health care system, but it may not even be the most effective solution to the problem.
“People with osteoarthritis are relying more and more heavily on surgery,” Dr. David T. Felson, a rheumatologist and epidemiologist at Boston University School of Medicine, said in a recent New York Times article. “The rate of knee replacement is just skyrocketing, out of proportion to increases in arthritic changes seen on X-rays, and replacement surgery is contributing greatly to the rising costs of Medicare."
"Osteoarthritis, which affects 40 percent of people aged 40 and older, is the most common form of arthritis," according to Health Magazine. "Osteoarthritis, which often causes pain and stiffness, is a degeneration of the cartilage in the joints."
To combat this pain, many seniors have been electing surgeries and replacements, and this trend has risen dramatically in the past several decades.
"Between 1979 and 2002, knee replacement surgery rose 800 percent among people 65 and older," according to the New York Times.
However, those who do choose to have knee replacements may not find the results they anticipated.
Although he noted the benefits of hip replacements, Felson said in The New York Times, “For 10 to 30 percent of patients, the improvement never comes.”
This onset of osteoarthritis may simply be attributed to old age for many people, but certain lifestyle choices can mitigate the severity of the condition later in life.
“The health economic burden of osteoarthritis is increasing commensurate with obesity prevalence and longevity,” John Loughlin of Newcastle University in England said in the Health Magazine article. Loughlin is the lead author of a recent study linking genes to osteoarthritis.
“With every step, the force exerted on weight-bearing joints is one and a half times body weight,” said Dr. Glen Johnson in the New York Times, who reported on arthritis prevention and treatment at the annual meeting of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association in June. “With jogging, the force is increased seven or eight times. Thus, the most effective way to prevent arthritis in knees and hips is to lose weight if you’re overweight and to pursue non-impact activities for recreation.”
If surgery does appear to be the best route, it may be advantageous to delay it as long as possible so that the procedure will provide maximum benefit.
"Artificial joints usually last 10 to 15 years," according to the New York Times. "Delaying surgery is helpful because the earlier in life a joint is replaced, the more likely a subsequent replacement will be needed. And both devices and surgical techniques are constantly being improved; by delaying a joint replacement, you may end up with a simpler operation or more durable device."
Even still, sometimes it may be best to abstain for surgery altogether.
"Joint replacement, especially of the knee, is not a walk in the park," The New York Times reports. "Arduous physical therapy is essential, and recovery can be long and painful. There are limitations after recovery, too, because artificial joints are not as flexible as the ones you were born with."
So if not surgery, then what? Fortunately for patients, there are plenty of options out there to prevent or remedy arthritis. Is important, however, to consult a doctor before beginning any treatment regimen.
"Certain anti-inflammatory ingredients can be incorporated into the diet, such as tumeric and ginger," said Dr. Ashwin Mehta, medical director of integrative medicine at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine, in an ABC News article. "Ginger and tumeric are powerful anti-inflammatory ingredients we can recommend pretty much to anybody. They are very safe and have no potential medication interactions or complications."
While adding ingredients to a diet can be helpful, most experts agree proper exercise is the best way to silence those creaky joints.
"Physical activity and exercise are very important, especially something like yoga that would target the joints," said Mehta. "Yoga is a type of exercise that focuses on the nuts and bolts that hold everything else together, like the tendons and ligaments, and it's designed for preventive joint health."
Aside from exercise or incorporating ginger into a diet, doctors found a few other effective treatment options to recommend.
"Acupuncture has been found to be effective for osteoarthritis of the knee and hip as well as for rheumatoid arthritis, and a small study found it helps arthritis in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus," Taw said. "Simple things like taking warm showers and using heating pads can relieve symptoms, and if the pain is worse with warm weather, we recommend cooling measures."