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Are Joint Replacement Surgeries Safe During COVID-19?

Close up photo of a surgeon's gloved hands holding a silver hip replacement joint.

 Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • If people who have chronic joint pain delay necessary surgery, they can experience accelerated mobility loss.
  • Experts say that total joint replacement surgery is safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • New advances in orthopedic care, including less invasive procedures and virtual care options, can improve a patient's quality of life.

Chronic pain in multiple joints affects 1 in 4 adults over the age of 18. By the time we get to age 65, about 2 in 5 adults are affected. Yet a recent survey shows that 48% of patients in need of joint replacement surgery are postponing their procedures because of pandemic-related concerns.

The survey included responses from 1,200 U.S. joint replacement patients, candidates, and caregivers collected in August and September of 2020.

“The impact [of joint pain during COVID-19] has been tremendous,” Trevor Pickering, MD, an orthopedic surgeon with Mississippi Sports Medicine who consulted on the survey, tells Verywell. “My patients who suffer from chronic debilitating hip and knee pain have been very confused and stressed about proceeding with surgery, not knowing if they can, and not knowing what their options are.” 

Experts say that updated surgical procedures, innovations in recovery, virtual care options, and adherence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines make joint replacement surgery safe for patients—even amid COVID-19.

How Joint Pain Affects Quality of Life

Chronic joint pain decreases mobility, interferes with sleep, and increases the risk of falls and injury. When patients delay surgery that could be helpful, it's more likely they will experience ongoing pain and loss of mobility.

The results of the survey, conducted by Wakefield Research on behalf of the medical device company Zimmer Biomet, show that 53% of the participants have been waiting for more than a year to address their joint pain with joint replacement surgery. Of those who had been waiting for more than a year, nearly 61% of people attributed the wait time directly to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mary L., a patient of Pickering’s, had right knee replacement surgery in 2017 after she tore her meniscus. In August 2020, she had a left knee replacement. Mary tells Verywell that before she had surgery, her knees would lock in place and not bend, causing her pain and making her afraid of falling.

Consequences of Delaying Joint Replacement Surgery

The survey also found that the people who have postponed their joint replacement surgery amid COVID-19 reported increases in joint pain (71%), limitations to mobility (58%), and trouble sleeping (35%).

“Patients are suffering, not only in their mobility and comfort but in their general health,” Pickering says. “The vast majority of the time, these patients will rehab and return to their pre-decline baseline. My fear with patients who are putting [surgery] off is that they will get to the point where their rehab becomes difficult or impossible to do. If you get debilitated to the point that you can’t do that rehab, then the recovery is going to be tough."

Pickering adds that when patients gain weight from immobility, conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure become more challenging to control. “Being active is being healthy,” he says.

Trevor Pickering, MD

Patients are suffering, not only in their mobility and comfort but in their general health.

— Trevor Pickering, MD

Is Orthopedic Surgery Safe During a Pandemic?

“We’ve been doing total joint replacement surgeries outpatient for several years now, so that is one thing we can offer to patients who are fearful of spending the night in the hospital,” Pickering says. “They get to be in the comfort and safety of their own home after surgery.”

Mary L. was able to have her surgery performed as an outpatient. “I preferred that. I felt better being able to come home," she says.

Some people might need to have surgery in an inpatient setting, but Pickering assures these patients that hospitals are taking precautions to keep them safe.

“Hospitals have gone to great lengths to make the elective surgeries very safe in the inpatient setting," he says. "They are [following CDC guidelines] and keeping surgical patients on separate floors from the COVID patients."

Advances in Recovery and Follow-Up Care

Pickering says that his team is working on ways to help patients do their rehab at home rather than having to go to or be in a rehab facility while they recover from joint replacement surgery.

Telehealth has expanded options for providers and patients. Pickering uses MyMobility, an iPhone app that syncs with the Apple Watch, to monitor patient activity, suggest appropriate physical activities, educate patients, and give advice.

“We can communicate with patients, send them exercises, and check on them virtually, which has improved the patient experience,” Pickering says. “MyMobility has provided a way for patients to stay in touch with us while reducing the number of visits they have to make to the clinic.”

Another patient of Pickering's, Betty Q., says the virtual support was important for her recovery. "After surgery, my doctor sent me activity reminders and checked on my progress in real-time, which minimized my need for in-office visits," she tells Verywell. "Especially during the pandemic, it was important for me to have the option to do physical therapy from home. Knowing I was virtually supported reduced my anxiety and gave me additional peace of mind.”

What This Means For You

If you're considering orthopedic surgery but are nervous about being in the hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic, know that healthcare facilities are taking steps to protect patients. For instance, you might not even have to have the procedure done in a hospital at all.

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Article Sources
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  1. Weinstein SI, Yelin EH, Watkins-Castillo SI. BMUS: The burden of musculoskeletal diseases in the United States. Bone and Joint Initiative. Updated 2014.

  2. Zimmer Biomet. Zimmer Biomet joint replacement patient and caregiver U.S. perception survey. Updated September 25, 2020.

  3. Zimmer Biomet. Zimmer Biomet empowers joint surgery candidates who have delayed procedures: "don't let pain gain on you". Updated October 20, 2020.