Having Joint Replacement Surgery? Here’s What to Expect

Knowing what to expect for joint replacement surgery may ease the nerves.

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If you’re nervous about your upcoming joint replacement surgery, it may help to learn more about the procedure. When you know what to expect for joint replacement surgery, the day of surgery may have fewer surprises and keep anxiety levels in check.

Preparing for Surgery

In the weeks or months leading up to the procedure, your surgeon and primary care provider may help you reach your optimal health before joint replacement surgery. This may include quitting smoking (at least temporarily) and possibly losing weight.

On the day of surgery, you should arrive early. (Your surgeon will give you the exact time you should arrive.) Arriving early helps ensure that your surgical team has enough time for the pre-surgery process.

What to Expect for Joint Replacement

“The goal of joint replacement surgery is to allow a patient … to get back a lot of the function they've lost,” says William Macaulay, MD, orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health. By the end of the surgery, your pain levels should drop to low levels “or perhaps no pain at all over a few weeks or months.”

The surgery itself will last around two hours. During this time, your joint (such as your hip or knee) will be replaced with metal or plastic parts.

“Joint replacement surgery is the resurfacing of damaged joint surfaces,” says Dr. Macaulay. The joint “typically has cartilage [that] is damaged and causing the joint to swell and give the patient pain.” The metal or plastic joint doesn’t have nerve endings, resulting in improved function and less pain for you.

After your surgery, your recovery process will start. This will include managing pain, getting up and walking, and working with a physical therapist. On average, most patients stay in the hospital for two to three days for their joint replacement surgery.

What Risks to Know About

Of course, every surgery comes with risks. Surgeons in the U.S. perform hundreds of thousands of joint replacement surgeries each year, according to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. In other words, it might be foreign and nerve-wracking for you, but it’s a daily practice that your orthopedic surgeon is likely very comfortable with.

“I can safely tell my patients that they can have a 99 percent chance they're going to go through the procedure without a major medical or surgical complication,” says Dr. Macaulay.

The most common risk after surgery is a surgical site infection. Hospitals have many procedures in place to reduce the risk of surgical site infection—such as handwashing and wearing masks, gloves, and gowns. However, surgical site infections still happen occasionally despite their best efforts. Some people are more at risk for surgical site infections, such as people with diabetes or people who smoke.

Coping with Anxiety Before the Surgery

“If patients are particularly anxious about receiving a joint replacement … I would urge them to just have an extra conversation with their surgeon and the surgical team,” says Dr. Macaulay. “[You] can get more data, more statistics and perhaps be introduced to patients who've gone through that procedure before.”