DENVER — If you need a knee replacement, you’re not alone. More than 4.7 million Americans, including 3 percent of people over the age of 60, have a knee they weren’t born with, and about 700,000 knee replacement surgeries are done each year.
Even though knee replacement surgery is common, it’s still a major procedure – and can be a bit nerve-wracking in the weeks and months leading up to the operation. The good news is there are steps you can take to help you feel as prepared as possible and also to help increase the odds of a smooth surgery and recovery period.
Evaluate your needs
How do you know if you need surgery in the first place? Dr. Efrem Castillo, chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement, says that while every individual has a different tipping point for initiating surgery, there are some general guidelines about when it is an appropriate step.
“In general, you would know you’re a candidate for surgery if you’re having pain with activities of daily living, and those symptoms have not been responsive to treatments such as anti-inflammatory medications, exercise and strengthening protocols, weight loss if appropriate, or even injections in the knee,” Castillo said.
Some patients have endured knee pain that gradually gets worse for several years, he added. For others, the symptoms come on suddenly. Everyone is different.
Surgery can be hard on your body, so it’s important to get in the best shape you can before you get on the operating table. Step one? Try to stop smoking. Studies show that smokers have less successful knee replacements than their smoke-free counterparts. Part of the reason for that, scientists suspect, is that smoking interferes with the body’s ability to heal itself. (And if you think you’re too old to quit smoking, think again!)
If you’re overweight, your doctor may advise you to try to shed a few pounds to avoid potential complications during surgery, particularly if your body mass index (BMI) is above 40. (Use this calculator to figure out your BMI.) But be realistic in your expectations: Some patients have difficulty losing weight because their knee pain makes it tough to exercise, Castillo said.
If your doctor does recommend you try to lose some weight before surgery, check out these tips to get started, and do the best you can.
Find the right surgeon
The surgeon and hospital you choose can have a major impact on both your costs and your outcomes post-surgery. Spend some time researching surgeons in your area to find one who provides high-quality care at a reasonable price.
If you have benefits through your job or through a Medicare Advantage plan, check with your health insurance company to find doctors and surgical facilities in your plan’s network, as most plans require you to pay a larger portion of your treatment cost if you see an out-of-network doctor.
To research the quality of the hospital or facility where you plan to have your operation, check out the Hospital Compare tool on Medicare.gov. You may also want to check with your insurance company to see if they have any information about the quality ratings of different doctors in your network.
Think ahead to recovery
While it may be tempting to get right back into the swing of things shortly after your surgery, be realistic about your recovery time. Don’t plan any walking tours or intense Stairmaster sessions in the weeks following your surgery.
You may be hobbling around with crutches or a walker for a few weeks after the surgery, and that can make things that used to be a breeze – doing laundry or walking the dog, for example – a painful ordeal. Identify people who can help you with ordinary household chores and errands before booking your surgery.
Most people are able to go home after surgery, rather than to a rehabilitation facility, and Castillo noted that it helps to modify your home in advance to make it easier to get around. That might mean sleeping on a sofa bed in the family room for a few weeks after surgery to avoid climbing up and down stairs. Putting a waterproof seat in the shower and clearing away loose cords and rugs that could trip you up could also help you avoid accidents at home while you recover.
Finally, plan to start an exercise program soon after surgery to strengthen your muscles and improve your range of motion. While some doctors may recommend that patients see a physical therapist, others may simply give patients exercises to do at home.
Knee replacement surgery can be a daunting proposition, there’s no doubt about it. But if you arm yourself with information and find the right people to help guide you through the process, it can be more manageable. And don’t forget about your insurance company as a part of that support system. UnitedHealthcare’s Navigate4Me program, for instance, shows how a company can be a valued team member and ally, invested in your health. For people like Melinda Lacy, having a single point of contact to answer her questions and address concerns along her knee replacement journey provided significant comfort and solidified her trust in the program.
To learn more about Medicare Advantage plans that include Navigate4Me, visit UHCMedicareHealthPlans.com.