A complete guide to joint replacement surgery

Almost 2 million Australians get joint replacements each year. Here’s what you need to know about the different types of joint replacement surgery and how to prepare.

Written by Medibank
July 2023

If you’re considering joint replacement surgery, you may have already tried less invasive strategies to improve joint function, and you might be experiencing severe hip or knee pain. 

If this is your experience, joint replacement surgery can provide significant pain relief, as well as improved mobility. Joint replacement is a major surgery, but it’s generally thought to be safe and effective. It’s an option your treating specialist might consider if other, less invasive treatments haven’t been helpful.   


woman crouching with dog at the beach

What is joint replacement surgery?

Joint replacement surgery involves removing damaged bone and cartilage from the joint area and replacing them with new parts made of metal or plastic. 

The most common reason to get joint replacement surgery is osteoarthritis. People also sometimes need joint replacement surgery for other reasons, such as fractures or avascular necrosis (a disease that limits blood supply to the joint).  

Types of joint replacement surgery 

The type of joint replacement surgery performed most often in Australia is knee replacement surgery, followed by hip replacement surgery. In 2021, there were 980,419 knee replacements and 796,686 hip replacements performed in Australia.1 Surgeries to replace other joints, such as shoulders and elbows, are less common.

Types of knee replacement surgery

Total knee replacement

In a total knee replacement, the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone) are cut, and the damaged joint is removed. Sometimes, some of the bone is removed too. Then, a prosthetic joint is attached to the femur and tibia.   

Sometimes, to prevent the kneecap from rubbing against the prosthetic joint, the underside of the kneecap is shaved back and a plastic, button-like disc is attached.

Partial knee replacement

In a partial knee replacement, also known as a uni-compartmental knee replacement, only one part of the knee joint is removed and replaced.    

Types of hip replacement surgery

Total hip replacement

The hip is a ball-and-socket joint. The ball is at the top of the femur (thigh bone) and the socket is part of the pelvis. In a total hip replacement, both parts of the original joint are cut away and replaced with an artificial ball and socket.  

Partial hip replacement

In a partial hip replacement, only the top of the femur, the ball part of the joint, is replaced. Generally, the socket in the pelvis isn’t altered.   

Revision total knee or hip replacement

The prostheses used in knee replacements can last for up to 10 years , and those used in hip replacements can last for up to 15 years. They can fail due to the joint wearing out, or due to infection, dislocation or fracture. A revision total knee or hip replacement is an operation to replace parts of an old knee or hip replacement with a new one.  

Senior couple

No Gap Joint Replacement Program

Eligible members could pay no out-of-pocket costs* for a knee or hip joint replacement with participating surgeons and hospitals.

How to prepare for joint replacement surgery

Here are some ways to prepare before you go to hospital:

  1. Get informed. Find out as much as you can about the procedure, including preparation and recovery information.   
  2. Understand the risks. While joint replacement surgery is designed to improve your quality of life, all surgery carries risks. It’s important you understand what those risks are, how likely they are in your situation, and what impact they may have. Talk them over with your doctor or surgeon.  
  3. Get organised. Talk to your doctor or hospital staff about your options for rehabilitation after your surgery and how to aid your recovery once you get home.   
  4. Get help. Ask your family and friends to help out, because you can’t recover from surgery on your own.
  5. Get healthy. The fitter, stronger and healthier you are, the better your body will be able to cope with surgery. Try to maintain a healthy weight, eat foods that are healthy and high in nutrients, and talk to your doctor about exercise that won’t exacerbate your joint damage.

What to expect during joint replacement surgery

Both knee replacement surgery and hip replacement surgery can take between one and four hours. About an hour before the surgery, you will be given medication to help prepare your body for the procedure.

Anaesthesia for joint replacement surgery 

Before the operation, you’ll be put under either general anaesthetic, which makes you unconscious, or regional anaesthetic, which numbs part of your body where the surgery will occur. Regional anaesthetic is more commonly used because it has fewer side effects, while still effectively relieving pain.  

The anaesthetist will decide which type of anaesthetic to give you based on your health, your past experience with surgery, your surgeon’s preference and your preference.  

After the operation

If you are healthy, recovering well and have few complications, you may be able to go home a few days after the surgery.     

In Australia, there is a small but increasing number of same-day joint replacement surgeries deemed clinically safe and appropriate, where you are discharged from hospital on the day you receive surgery. These are in early stages but are yielding positive feedback.      

Recovering from joint replacement surgery 

Here are some tips to help you recover from joint replacement surgery:

  1. Adjust to life with your new joint. Recovery after joint replacement surgery takes time. It may take several months to a year before the full benefits of the operation are felt. If you are having difficulty performing everyday tasks speak to your doctor or surgeon. Alternatively, an occupational therapist can recommend aids and equipment to help you maintain your independence.   
  2. Get back into the swing of things. Start gentle activity sooner rather than later after surgery, following your surgeon’s recommendations. Doing your recommended exercises will help you recover more quickly. 
  3. Maintain a healthy weight. Extra body weight adds stress to the joints. Maintaining a healthy weight will help your new joint last longer.  
Senior couple

Rehab at Home

Eligible members can receive care from a registered health professional in the comfort of their own home, where clinically appropriate.**

Read more about joint surgery

Looking for something else?

Visit Joint health for more information.

Things you need to know

1 Australian Orthopaedic Association National Joint Replacement Registry, 2022 annual report, retrieved 6 June 2023. 

* There may be out-of-pocket expenses associated with outpatient appointments, such as your initial visit with a participating surgeon in their consulting rooms. If a member has chosen an excess or per-day payment on their cover to lower their monthly premium, this will still be payable (for example, if you’re claiming for the first time that calendar year, you may need to pay an excess). 

** For eligible hospital members who have served waiting periods. Treating doctor must consider it appropriate. Services are subject to provider availability. Providers are not located in all areas and may change without notice. Additional treatment may incur out-of-pocket costs.  

While we hope you find this information helpful, please note that it is general in nature. It is not health advice, and is not tailored to meet your individual health needs. You should always consult a trusted health professional before making decisions about your health care. While we have prepared the information carefully, we can’t guarantee that it is accurate, complete or up-to-date. And while we may mention goods or services provided by others, we aren’t specifically endorsing them and can’t accept responsibility for them. For these reasons we are unable to accept responsibility for any loss that may be sustained from acting on this information (subject to applicable consumer guarantees).