New York—July 31, 2012
Barry Vargas is the picture of health, tall and athletic- looking. You’d never imagine the upbeat 34-year-old would be a candidate for knee replacement, an operation generally performed on people in their sixties and older.
Osteoarthritis rarely sidelines people in their thirties, but multiple injuries to his left knee and severe pain eventually brought Vargas to the office of Dr. Geoffrey Westrich, co-director of Joint Replacement Research at Hospital for Special Surgery.
“I had my first knee injury playing football when I was 17,” Vargas explains. “I had arthroscopic surgery to repair the torn meniscus cartilage, but within a month I tore it again.” After a while, he hurt the same knee again. Those injuries, and a total of four surgeries in a six-year period, did a number on his knee. Arthritis set in, and he was in pain most of the time.
“It got to the point where I was unable to live the life I wanted to live,” said Vargas, a successful television producer. He opted for knee replacement surgery in September 2011 to relieve his pain and resume his active lifestyle.
At age 34, Vargas is one of Westrich’s youngest total knee replacement patients. Westrich, an associate professor of orthopedic surgery and specialist in knee and hip replacement, is also seeing more people in their 40s who refuse to be sedentary and want to return to an active lifestyle.
“Clearly, times have changed regarding our treatment of patients with knee and hip arthritis,” Westrich says. “In the not-so-distant past, most younger patients with advanced arthritis were told to live with the pain or cut back on their activities, and wait until later in life to have joint replacement. Many younger patients, including Barry Vargas, are still told to wait, despite the fact that their quality of life suffers.”
Joint replacement is still a major operation that requires extensive physical therapy, but lucky for Vargas, patients now have more options. And many are choosing to have the surgery sooner, rather than later.
Newer techniques such as minimally invasive knee and hip replacements, partial knee replacement and improved implant designs have changed the way many orthopedic surgeons look at joint replacement, according to Westrich. “The newer implants are expected to last more than 20 years, and they give patients a better range of motion, so it’s easier for them to bend their knee. Overall, the prosthesis feels more like a natural knee.”
For the pain relief alone, almost all patients will tell you a successful joint replacement restores quality of life, according to Westrich. For patients able to get back to athletic activities, it changes their lives dramatically.
When people are affected by arthritis, their general health can suffer. “People tend to become ‘couch potatoes’ because they can’t do as much. First they give up sports, because it’s too painful to participate, then they become less active overall, and it’s a downhill spiral for many,” Westrich says. “Unfortunately, the lack of exercise and weight gain can have a significant impact on their general health and make their arthritic symptoms worse. With the proper orthopedic intervention, we are now able to relieve their pain and help them get back to a healthier lifestyle.”
Six months after knee replacement, Barry Vargas is back at the gym using the elliptical machine and weight lifting. He says he wants his knee implant to last, so he is going to stay away from high-impact sports. He’s planning to try Pilates and may go skiing. And with a new TV project in the works, he looks forward to returning to his busy professional life, pain-free.
About HSS | Hospital for Special Surgery
HSS is the world’s leading academic medical center focused on musculoskeletal health. At its core is Hospital for Special Surgery, nationally ranked No. 1 in orthopedics (for the ninth consecutive year) and No. 3 in rheumatology by U.S.News & World Report (2018-2019). Founded in 1863, the Hospital has one of the lowest infection rates in the country and was the first in New York State to receive Magnet Recognition for Excellence in Nursing Service from the American Nurses Credentialing Center four consecutive times. The global standard total knee replacement was developed at HSS in 1969. An affiliate of Weill Cornell Medical College, HSS has a main campus in New York City and facilities in New Jersey, Connecticut and in the Long Island and Westchester County regions of New York State. In 2017 HSS provided care to 135,000 patients and performed more than 32,000 surgical procedures. People from all 50 U.S. states and 80 countries travelled to receive care at HSS. In addition to patient care, HSS leads the field in research, innovation and education. The HSS Research Institute comprises 20 laboratories and 300 staff members focused on leading the advancement of musculoskeletal health through prevention of degeneration, tissue repair and tissue regeneration. The HSS Global Innovation Institute was formed in 2016 to realize the potential of new drugs, therapeutics and devices. The culture of innovation is accelerating at HSS as 130 new idea submissions were made to the Global Innovation Institute in 2017 (almost 3x the submissions in 2015). The HSS Education Institute is the world’s leading provider of education on the topic on musculoskeletal health, with its online learning platform offering more than 600 courses to more than 21,000 medical professional members worldwide. Through HSS Global Ventures, the institution is collaborating with medical centers and other organizations to advance the quality and value of musculoskeletal care and to make world-class HSS care more widely accessible nationally and internationally.