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Knee replacements are on the rise

LORY POUNDER
Summit County Correspondent
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

FRISCO ” Just two months after having a knee replaced, Norm Reynolds was back on the slopes.

“It hurt all the time before … no matter what I did, it hurt,” said Reynolds, 63, a ski instructor with the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center.

However, since the surgery, he has skied and done overnight hiking trips with a pack and not had any problems. This year, he even plans on getting back on a snowboard ” which he had to quit a couple years ago because of the pain.



And despite the fact that this kind of results for a total knee replacement are fairly common throughout Summit County, it is not typical for other parts of the country, said Dr. Richard Cunningham, knee and shoulder surgeon with Vail Summit Orthopaedics who does about 100 total knee replacement surgeries a year.

“A 65-year-old up here is very different from a 65-year-old in a metropolitan area,” he said.



However, also because there is such an active population, the number of knee replacements Cunningham is doing is on the rise and oftentimes patients are younger than the national trends, he said.

Reynolds’ knee replacement in September 2006 was the result of a leg injury from the early 70s. He shattered his tibia and because it wasn’t set right, he walked on the inside of his knee and wore out the cartilage, he said. It is for reasons like this that Cunningham sees patients at younger ages. Some patients who have had a serious injury when they were young then get arthritis and need a replacement in their 40s and 50s, the doctor said.

The youngest patient for a total knee replacement he has seen was a 34-year-old woman.

“The Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons recommends no skiing after a knee replacement, but that said, all my patients do,” said Cunningham, adding that he just recommends being smart about it.

And while some people cannot avoid knee replacements, there are a few lifestyle choices that could help them from getting to that point. Cunningham recommends keeping weight under control; for every pound people lose it takes five pounds of pressure off their knees. Also, smoking hurts cartilage so quitting is important, he said. And, the piece of advice that most pertains to Summit County residents is that by not participating in higher risk activities like “snowboarders hucking off cliffs,” people can avoid damaging their joints, he added.

Biking, swimming and Nordic skiing are examples of fitness options that put far less stress on the joint, he said.

Cunningham uses an aggressive approach to knee surgery, which caters to the Summit County population that has high expectations after recovery. Instead of being satisfied that a walk to the mailbox no longer hurts, they want 100-plus days on the mountain, the doctor explained.

Also, a large part of that recovery is physical therapy, said Rob Margison, MS, PT and facility director at Avalanche Physical Therapy and Sports Rehabilitation.

Cunningham and Margison recently held an informational session called “My Achy Worn-Out Knees” at the Summit County Community and Senior Center. More than 50 people filled the room, many of whom have already had at least one replacement, to hear about surgery and rehabilitation.

“Surgery alone is not going to fix the problem,” Margison told the crowd.

Some of the advice he offered, included not having unrealistic expectations, realizing every case is different and that building endurance before the surgery can be helpful for recovery.

Local resident Jay Weides knows firsthand how important physical therapy is. He completed an intensive rehabilitation program in August, about five months after having his left knee replaced. By Nov. 5, he had already finished his 16th day on the hill.

“I’m shooting for 136 this year,” said Weides, who chose that number because it is double his age.

Before the replacement, the knee hurt just from walking. Still, he put the surgery off as long as he could. It was when the pain got bad enough that he made an appointment. And while the first couple weeks following surgery were intensely painful, he has now seen the benefits and has no plans of slowing down.

“We’ll see how it does when I get back in the trees,” he said with a laugh.

Lory Pounder can be reached at (970) 668-4628, or at lpounder@summitdaily.com.


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