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How to Avoid Infection after Joint Replacement Surgery

Feb 18, 2015

Joint replacement surgery is a straightforward procedure that has improved the quality of life for thousands of people each year. It has the power to relieve pain and restore range of motion to various joints in the body that were once damaged such as the knee or hip. However, like all major surgeries, there are risks that need to be considered.

Infection can occur at the wound site of the replacement surgery or within the replacement joint itself. It can happen immediately after the surgery, or even years later. Physicians will take serious measures to prevent and treat an infection.

Joints are the point at which two bones come together. Types of joints include the ball-and-socket joint and the hinge joint. The ends of bones are often covered in articular cartilage which provides cushioning for the bones to move easily. In an unhealthy joint, the cartilage wears away and the ends of the bones rub together without any cushioning. This causes a great deal of pain for the patient and can lead to the ends of the bones wearing down. When this happens, some people have no choice but to have their joints replaced.

In a joint replacement surgery, the surgeon removes the damaged parts of the bones, such as the ball-and-socket joint in the shoulder, and replaces them with artificial metal or plastic pieces that resemble the real bones.

Infection

Any infection that exists within your body can travel to your joint replacement. Because these replacements are artificial and the immune system does not recognize them as part of the body, it doesn’t attack bacteria that can cause infection. Some people are more at risk to develop infection than others.

Factors that increase this risk include:

  • Immune deficiencies including HIV and lymphoma
  • Diabetes
  • Peripheral vascular disease
  • Obesity
  • Immunosuppressive treatments

If you’re experiencing symptoms of infection, it’s important to contact your doctor right away. Ignoring an infection could make you very sick, so it’s crucial that you seek treatment immediately.

Signs of infection include:

  • Persistent fever higher than 100 degrees
  • Draining from the incision wound
  • Increasing pain whether you’re resting or moving
  • Tenderness, redness, or swelling of the incision wound

Examination

After you’ve contacted your doctor about the symptoms you’re experiencing, if they suspect infection, they will perform a physical examination. This exam will include imaging tests like X-rays and bone scans, as well as blood tests that can identify infection.

Treatment

  • Non-surgical

If the skin or the tissues around the joint replacement has become infected, your physician will prescribe antibiotics to treat this issue. These treatments are for infections that are caught in the early stages.

  • Surgical

If your infection has made its way into the artificial joint, you will most likely need to undergo surgery to have the infected areas removed. In a mild case, your surgeon may only remove the infected tissues surrounding the joint. In more severe cases that occur months or years after joint replacement, the artificial joint may have to be removed.

Discuss your risk of developing an infection with your doctor before undergoing joint replacement surgery. Although these conditions can occur, they are typically very rare.

If you’re considering orthopaedic surgery, download our e-book, How to Choose an Orthopaedic Surgeon. This educational guide will help you choose a reputable surgeon you can trust.

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