Joint Replacement May Relieve Your Painful Elbow, Wrist or Fingers

Beyond knee and hip replacement surgery

When you think about joint replacement, you may assume the surgery is only available for hips, knees and shoulders. And, yes, those surgeries are most common. But if you have stiff and painful elbows, wrists or even fingers, joint replacement surgery may offer relief for you as well.

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“These joint implants are highly successful for pain relief and function,” says Peter J. Evans, MD, PhD, an upper extremity surgeon at Cleveland Clinic.

He cautions that you may have to live with some limitations after these types of surgery. But if you’re a good candidate, “They’re life-changing, like hip and knee replacements,” he says.

Overall, joint replacement surgery is an effective way to eliminate joint pain, correct a deformity and improve limited motion.

The most common culprits behind these joint issues are osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. These conditions may stem from heredity, repetitive injury or trauma.

Who are the best candidates for elbow, wrist and finger joint replacement? Typically, those who have a less physically demanding lifestyle, such as older adults. However, if you are younger but other treatments fail to relieve your pain and restore function, then this type of surgery may help you as well.

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Who can benefit from elbow joint replacement?

You may hear some refer to elbow joint replacement as “coffee cup” or “retirement” elbow surgery. That’s because it comes with a weight restriction. After surgery, you should only lift, pull or push 5 pounds or less single-handed. (As a comparison, a gallon of milk weighs about 8 pounds.)

“We are seeing a growing number of people in the 70-plus age range who break their elbow and have a low-physical-demand lifestyle who can benefit from a joint replacement,” Dr. Evans says. “But this surgery won’t hold up for people with physical jobs like construction or those who ride dirt bikes.”

Those who are less active and have inflammatory arthritis are also good candidates, he says.

Wrist and finger joint implants have limitations too

Wrist joint implants are now in their 4th generation. They are more reliable and allow for an active lifestyle, Dr. Evans says. However, they still will not hold up to the rigors of a physically demanding occupation or a lifestyle that involves high-impact loading.

Doctors may recommend joint replacement in the hand especially if you have rheumatoid arthritis or significant deformity and dysfunction. It also can offer relief for those with severe osteoarthritis.

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Replacing joints of the base or middle knuckles, or both, may help decrease your pain. It also may improve physical appearance and range of motion, making the fingers more useful, Dr. Evans says.

However, joint fusion (arthrodesis) may provide better stability in some instances, he says. Fusing the joint at the tip of the finger with the joint below, for example, can stabilize and straighten the joint. This can help eliminate pain. But the joint will no longer bend.

Surgery is the last line of treatment

Doctors recommend joint replacement surgery, whether it’s in a hip or a hand, when other non-surgical treatments no longer help reduce pain and improve function.

First-line treatments include physical therapy, medications, topical creams, splinting and cortisone injections.

If you think you may benefit from elbow, wrist or hand joint replacement surgery, talk to your doctor. If you meet the criteria, you’ll likely see a positive outcome, Dr. Evans says.

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