It’s the million dollar question: When is the best time for knee replacement surgery?

You’ve been managing your knee pain with more conservative treatment options for some time – and they may not be working like they used to. But at what point do you consider surgery?

Good timing is key to helping you maximize how you’ll benefit from the procedure. But for many, stretching the replacement timeline out as much as possible is very common. In fact, many of our knee replacement patients tell us that they wish they hadn’t waited so long.

How can you find the knee replacement sweet spot? Below, we cover some of the key factors in determining if it’s time for knee replacement surgery, as well as the risks of delaying knee replacement surgery or having it too early. You can also hear orthopedic surgeon Nicholas Weiss talk more about knee surgery timing on the following episode of the For Health’s Sake podcast.

When is the best time for knee replacement surgery?

According to a recent study by Northwestern Medicine, 90% of patients who would benefit from a knee replacement surgery are waiting too long. However, the study also found that about 25% of patients are having the procedure prematurely.

So, how do you know if you’re putting off your surgery or jumping the gun?

There isn’t a specific level of pain or immobility that means it’s time for a knee replacement – rather it’s a combination of factors unique to you, including:

  • Your age
  • Your knee pain treatment history
  • Your medical history
  • The amount of pain you feel in your knees
  • How well your knees function

Orthopedic doctors look at these factors, as well as imaging results from X-rays and MRIs, to make a recommendation on whether a knee replacement may be an option. This is such an important step because surgery is rarely the first or only option for most people. Plus, this can have an impact on the cost of a knee replacement – a doctor needs to actually “order” a replacement for it to be eligible for any insurance coverage.

As for signs that it might be time for a knee replacement, here are a few things to watch out for:

  • Make note of changes in your knee pain. For example, have you noticed that over-the-counter pain medicines don’t provide the same relief as they once did? Is knee pain making it difficult to sleep? Or is your knee pain making it difficult to do activities you love like playing a favorite sport, gardening or running after your grandkids?
  • Pay attention to how feel about doing daily activities. Are you avoiding certain tasks because of pain? Knee pain that disrupts everyday activities is a sign that it’s time to talk to a doctor.
  • Pay attention to how your knees feel in action and at rest. What do you feel when walking up or down stairs? What do you feel after sitting or standing for long periods of time? What about getting in and out of the car? Pain that makes these activities difficult or impossible often signals that it’s time to re-evaluate how you’re managing your pain.

If you notice any of these signs, make an appointment with an orthopedic doctor. Your doctor will listen to your concerns and symptoms, ask questions about your medical history, lifestyle and goals, and work with you do make a tailored treatment plan.

What are the risks of delaying knee replacement surgery?

Simply put, the longer you wait to get a knee replacement, the more wear and tear you put on your knees – and the longer you live with increasing pain, stiffness or mobility issues. But there are a few other things to consider, including:

  • As your knee condition worsens, your quality of life can also decrease. You may need to stop doing everyday activities, exercise or hobbies you’re passionate about, which can lead to other health conditions such as depression.
  • It can take longer for you to heal and rehab after surgery. When you put off surgery for too long, you can experience a continued loss of mobility and function in your joint. Plus, your body continues to age and your risk increases for developing other health conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Individually or combined, each of these factors can make it harder and take longer for you to rebuild your strength after knee replacement surgery.
  • You may not get the maximum amount of benefit from a new joint. If you wait too long, you may not get all the mobility and function improvements from a replacement joint that you could’ve.

What are the risks of having knee replacement surgery too soon?

The average age of someone who gets a knee replacement is about 70 years old. However, some people decide to get knee replacement surgery as young as 50.

There are several reasons younger people may opt for a knee replacement, particularly those who are extremely active or athletes. If you’re young and considering a knee replacement, here are a couple things to know:

  • Your implant can wear out prematurely. If you’re in your 40s or 50s, you’re likely living a more active life than someone in their 60s or 70s. More activity, means more wear and tear on the joint implant, which can cause it to wear out more quickly than expected. And that means pain, stiffness and mobility issues can return.
  • Knee replacements don’t last forever and you may need another surgery. Many patients have knee replacements that last for 20 years or more. But the longer and harder you use your replacement joint, the more likely it becomes that you’ll need a second knee replacement surgery to replace a worn out implant. And of course, knee replacement surgery carries some risks, especially as you age.

What should I do if I’m considering knee replacement surgery?

Getting a knee replacement is a big decision. If you think it’s time to start the discussion, make an appointment with an orthopedic doctor.

A doctor will talk with you about your symptoms, medical history, and goals, examine your knees, review any X-rays or imaging tests you’ve had done, and work with you to determine if a knee replacement is your best care option.

At TRIA, our orthopedic surgeons are among the best in the Midwest. We’re committed to providing accurate diagnoses and expert answers to help you decide what’s best for you. We’ll never push you toward surgery. If we don’t think it’s the right time for you to get a knee replacement, we’ll talk to you about non-surgical knee treatment options that may help reduce or heal pain, and improve your knee function.