Joint replacement surgery can help you regain function in your joints and reduce pain when you suffer from osteoarthritis or rheumatoid arthritis. Also called arthroplasty, joint replacement is the most widely known surgery for arthritis. Doctors can perform it on most joints, but the most common types of this procedure are knee replacement surgery and hip replacement surgery.

According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), about 700,000 Americans have knee replacements or hip replacements each year. Usually people over 50 are the likely candidates for these surgeries. However, if you've suffered from arthritis from the time you were a child, you may need to have a joint replacement before that age.

During joint replacement surgery, your doctor removes the part of the joint damaged by arthritis, and resurfaces and relines the bones where the cartilage has eroded. A new joint may contain ceramic, metal, or polyethylene (plastic) parts. There are two types of joint replacements - cemented and cementless. The latter takes more time to recover from, but generally lasts longer than cemented joints. They also allow bone to re-grow around the replaced joint more effectively.

Over the past three decades new implant materials have arrived on the scene, making total joint replacement one of the most reliable and durable surgeries, states the AAOS. After a knee replacement or hip replacement for arthritis you'll be able to resume low-impact activities such as swimming, golf or biking. But, high impact activities such as running or playing basketball will be off limits.

Joint replacement is an elective surgery, and usually a last resort for arthritis. Before you get to the stage where you'll need one, your doctor will likely try as many other treatments as possible. Because a joint replacement is a major surgery and requires a lot of post-op care and rehabilitation, most people put it off as long as possible - even tough they may need it.

So how do you know if joint replacement is right for you? Only you and your doctor can decide, but here are a few factors that guide the decision:

  • Arthritis has taken away most of the function in your joint.
  • You're suffering from unbearable pain and stiffness.
  • You're not happy with your mobility and it's interfering with your daily life.
  • You're no longer able to perform the leisure activities you like to because of joint pain and loss of function.
  • Medical tests by your doctor such as X-rays reveal a need for the surgery.
  • On average joint replacements last between 10 to 15 years. If you are younger and are still able to move and function, you may want to delay the surgery. Otherwise, you may need to have another joint replacement later in life.
  • You are generally healthy (aside from the arthritis) and able to undergo joint replacement surgery with few complications due to other medical reasons. So you could be 80 and still able to have the surgery if you're in good health.
  • You have the necessary support system in place to help you recover after the surgery - this could be family, friends, community health workers, neighbors, or church members.
  • Your weight can be a factor. Being overweight or obese places extra pressure on your joints and may interfere with your recovery after the joint replacement. In some cases you may need to lose weight to qualify for the surgery.

Deciding to have a joint replacement for arthritis is a big step. Get as much information from your doctor about the procedure - preparation, the surgery itself, risks and rehabilitation. Joint replacement is successful in about 90 percent of people who have it and can substantially improve your quality of life.