Health Check

6 things to consider before knee replacement surgery

Getting older is inevitable, but knee replacement surgery doesn’t need to be.

Written by Tim McGuire
Grandma pottering in her colourful garden with her grandchild.

Remember when going weak at the knees was a good thing?

If sore knees are making it hard for you to get out of bed in the morning, you’re not alone. Osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and is the main condition leading to knee replacement surgery in Australia. That’s a lot of people struggling to get out of bed each day.

Although often described as the ‘wear-and-tear’ arthritis, osteoarthritis is now thought to be caused by the result of a joint working extra hard to repair itself.

Symptoms of osteoarthritis will vary from person to person. The most common symptoms are pain and stiffness but may also include  mild swelling around the joint, a reduced range of movement, and clicking or cracking sounds when the joint bends.

While there is currently no cure for osteoarthritis, there are many different treatments that can slow progression and improve symptoms. Knee replacement surgery is sometimes necessary, but in other cases non-surgical approaches can help you relieve pain and improve joint function, and reduce your chances of a surgical outcome in the future.

First, speak to your doctor

Knowledge is power. The more you know about your condition and the sooner you know it, the more treatment options you’ll have. Osteoarthritis is a progressive disease, so getting a proper diagnosis is key to knowing how to slow it down. Speak to your doctor about your symptoms and to work out the best treatment plan for you. Early intervention can limit the effects of osteoarthritis on your life and help you maintain an active, independent lifestyle.

Know which activities to avoid

Avoiding repetitive joint-loading tasks such as kneeling, squatting and heavy lifting can help to delay the onset of osteoarthritis, and therefore decrease your likelihood of requiring knee replacement surgery in the future. If your usual routine involves some degree of kneeling or heavy-lifting – activities like gardening and wrangling the grandkids –speak to your GP or physio about a targeted strengthening program so you can keep doing the things you love..

Exercise safely and regularly

Contrary to how it might sound, exercising sore joints is one of the most effective ways to reduce arthritic pain and combat osteoarthritic symptoms. This is because exercise helps to stimulate the release of synovial fluid, which provides cartilage with the nutrients it needs to lubricate and loosen your joints.

For knee osteoarthritis, the best exercises are low-impact ones like muscle strengthening, walking and Tai Chi, but you could also try stationary cycling, aquatic exercise, hydrotherapy and Hatha yoga. It’s important to check with your GP before trying any new exercises, or work with a physio to develop an exercise plan.

READ MORE: Osteoarthritis explained

Maintain a healthy body weight

Excess body weight increases the strain on your joints, and can cause cartilage to break down more quickly. In fact, excess weight explains almost half of all cases of osteoarthritis. The good news is that even a few kilograms of weight loss can be effective in reducing osteoarthritis symptoms and improving joint pain and function. Maintaining a healthy body weight will also improve your overall health, and help lower your risk of complications should you require a knee replacement surgery in the future.

Ask about the Better Knee, Better Me™ program

If you have Medibank hospital cover which includes joint replacement surgery, you may be eligible to participate in Better Knee, Better Me™. The new 12-month program designed by Medibank and the University of Melbourne aims to decrease your chances of requiring knee replacement surgery in the future through a combination of personalised plans for exercise, weight loss and pain management.

The program is delivered remotely via video and phone consultations with accredited dietitians and registered physiotherapists, meaning you can participate from the safety and comfort of your own home – regardless of where you live.There is no cost to enrol or participate. If you consult your own GP or specialist in the course of the program, there may be a cost if they don’t bulk bill. 

Find out more about Better Knee, Better Me™ here.

Consider specialised equipment

Bill Withers said it best: we all need somebody to lean on. Walking sticks or canes can help ease pain by reducing the load on your knee. Your physiotherapist may also suggest: taping the kneecap, wearing a knee brace, or using orthoses, which are small wedges placed in your shoe to improve your knee alignment. Speak to your physiotherapist for advice about whether these support options are right for you.

Still considering surgery? 

If you’ve tried everything, and you are still considering surgery, you can read more about the risks and benefits in the Better Knee, Better MeTM: Knee replacement surgery for osteoarthritis guide to help with your decision. 

What do I do if I have osteoarthritis?

If you think you might have osteoarthritis, your first step should be to visit your GP to discuss your symptoms. They can discuss whether the Better Knee, Better Me program is right for you, or refer you to a specialist if necessary. You can also call the 24/7 Medibank Nurse on 1800 644 325 who can support you if you’re concerned about joint pain. OSHC members should call the Student Health and Support Line on 1800 887 283.

Written by Tim McGuire

Tim McGuire has written for The Big Issue, The Australian, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, and others. He’s written about HIV and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and lots of things in between. He lives in Melbourne.

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