Shadowing a Doctor

February 19, 2014

Joint replacement is usually performed to treat severe end-stage arthritis that can no longer be treated by addressing the debilitating everyday pain. When the arthritis is less severe, there are usually other procedures that may be performed but in the most severe cases, joint replacement is often the only option. Other conditions that can also be treated by joint replacement are serious injuries to ligaments, acute fracture care and a few chronic musculoskeletal conditions.

Today, computer-assisted joint replacement surgery is changing the way this procedure is being done. Orthopaedic surgeon Tom Paynter, a surgeon in the US Air Force performed the very first computer-assisted hip replacement surgery in Alaska.  As Paynter explains it, a joint replacement involves replacing a damaged or arthritic joint with a combination of metal and polyethylene. These joints that are inserted have to last many years, hopefully for decades.

The goal with computer-assisted joint replacement surgery is to help the surgeon ensure that the implants for the joint replacement line up perfectly so they function better and last longer with minimum wear. In this type of joint replacement surgery the surgeon plans the procedure by what he sees on the screen and also prepares to make an incision while looking at the computer screen next to the operating table instead of looking at the patient. The surgeon then uses computers to help guide where the components should be or where the implant should line up. 

Because of the many benefits it offers, computer-assisted surgery has become more popular over the past few years.

Benefits of computer-assisted surgery

With computer-assisted surgery, the surgeon still makes the incision and does all the hands-on work. However, the computer sensors offer the benefit of all-round surgical precision, thus minimizing human error and guaranteeing a better functioning device and an implant that lasts longer. Several studies that have been done on patients who have undergone computer-assisted joint replacement surgery have shown there are fewer outliers with computer-assisted surgery – which means that implants are closer to their ideal location. That adds up to significantly fewer surgery-related complications during or after the surgery. There are still many ongoing studies that are being done to try to determine the potential long term benefits of this type of surgery for joint replacement. 

Computer-assisted joint replacement surgery is not a shortcut, however. Very often, surgery time is extended anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes based upon the studies and the time to set up the equipment. Despite this extra time, surgeon who do the surgery think it is worth the extra time to do the implants in the proper location to have a good functioning implant for 20 to 30 years down the road.