Are there alternatives to hip replacement?

Over the years we have seen our fair share of people with a diagnosis of a bone-on-bone hips. The people we usually see have a lot of hip pain and instability which causes walking difficulties, balance difficulties and prevents these people from feeling stable on their feet. They also come into our office claiming that they have been told they only have one treatment option, hip replacement and that they should get on the list to get one. They are here in our office to ask, “Is hip replacement really my only option?”

Some people come in with a diagnosis of avascular necrosis. Some of these people have been told that the only way they will ever get pain relief is from a hip replacement. There are cases where the bone is very damaged and it has collapsed completely. The hip joint is now fused and the person cannot move or lift their leg. This person’s best option is probably joint replacement. But most people I see with avascular necrosis of the hip or shoulder don’t need a surgery. Sometimes they only need a little education to help them understand what is happening in their hip and that they can avoid the hip replacement.

Hip pain relief – are all hip replacement options being explored?

Someone who suffers constantly from pain and who does not want to learn to live with it may consider hip replacement as their only way to get back to a pain-free life and resumption of their normal activities. Others choose hip replacement because of concerns over losing their independence. This includes concerns over their ability to walk, drive, and perform daily and routine personal chores such as dressing, meal preparation, and hygiene. These same concerns are also brought up by people who do not want to have hip replacement. Hip replacement is a major surgery. The post-recovery rehab can put the person into these same situations that they were hoping to avoid, the inability to drive and be independent for weeks or months.

Despite the availability of evidence‐based guidelines for conservative treatment of osteoarthritis, management of degenerated joints is often confined to the use of painkillers and the wait for eventual total joint replacement.

The hip replacement decision making process over the last ten years.

Recently a 2015 paper in the Journal of medical Internet research suggested (1) that the treatment of hip arthritis and hip injury, like those of other joint osteoarthritic problems, is redefining itself at a pace probably not seen since the advent of hip replacement surgery.

Some doctors are upset however that patients are not given the full story on hip replacement options and alternatives. Despite the availability of evidence-based guidelines for conservative treatment of arthritis, management of degenerated joints is often confined to the use of painkillers and the wait for eventual total joint replacement. This suggests a gap in knowledge for those with arthritis regarding the many different treatment options available to them.

How wide a gap? A 2016 study published in the journal Osteoarthritis Cartilage suggested that when given time and educational materials to deliberate whether or not to proceed with hip replacement, more patients decide not to have surgery.(2)

Updating the patient decision support interventions in 2023

In May 2023, as information became more available, certainly more available since 2015, researchers wrote in the International journal of surgery (3) “The increase in elective surgeries and varied postoperative patient outcomes has boosted the use of patient decision support interventions. However, evidence on the effectiveness of patient decision support interventions are not updated.” In updating patient decision guide data information, this study team “demonstrated that patient decision support interventions targeting individuals considering elective surgeries had benefited their decision-making by reducing decisional conflict and increasing disease and treatment knowledge, decision-making preparedness, and decision quality.”

The rush to hip replacement because of severe pain. But is the hip as bad as the pain?

A February 2022 study (23) suggests that people, or the brain, may perceive a much more painful hip than the MRI indicates. This is what the paper says: “Hip osteoarthritis is characterized by chronic pain, but there remains a mismatch between symptoms and radiological findings (the pain is worse than the MRI). Recently, brain connectivity (the brains understanding of body parts, like the hip for instance) has been implicated in the modulation of chronic peripheral pain, however its association with perceived pain in hip osteoarthritis is not understood.” To understand why some people felt more hip pain than the MRI revealed patients with hip osteoarthritis were asked to perform activities that the researchers suspected would cause them pain. What they found was “functional connections between brain regions associated with pain are altered in hip osteoarthritis patients, and several connections are modulated by performing painful activity.” In other words pain causes more pain. To remedy this, the hip needs to be made less painful.

Diagnosing Hip Pain and arthritis – MRI or physical examination

Abnormal findings = surgical procedure.

This simple equation is well documented in the medical literature. Medical journals are filled with studies suggesting that while MRI is frequently used to diagnose conditions affecting the hip, its effectiveness in determining hip pain is not as valuable as a physical examination for determining pain or arthritis problems. MRIs are also not cost effective.(5) MRI is one of the main causes of continued hip pain after surgery.

In the medical journal Pain Physician, doctors agreed, and they offered a commentary that warned physicians that the true causes of hip pain can be easily overlooked and misdiagnosed because of the MRI.(6) This is why an extensive physical examination should be part of the diagnostic process.

Misdiagnosed hip pain can lead to back surgery – patient and doctor over reliance on MRI

We see many people with hip and back pain. Some have been told that they need a hip replacement, some have been told that they need a spinal fusion. Many of been told that they should consider both surgeries.  Now these people are trying to decide between one or the other surgery and exploring options to help them avoid one or the other surgery, even both. The problem for some of these people is that they may get a back surgery for a hip problem and a hip surgery for a back problem. Doctors have noted that the symptoms of hip arthritis pain and spinal stenosis leg pain can be very similar, with only subtle differences in both history and clinical physical examinations. Spinal stenosis is classically diagnosed in patients with leg pain that occurs during standing or walking and is relieved when the individual sits down. This is a clinical diagnosis that doctors say can only be confirmed by MRI.

However, in one paper, researchers showed that in as many as 50% of elderly patients, MRI gave a false positive diagnosis of spinal stenosis. Those MRI results might prompt a surgeon to perform spinal surgery. MRI causes more problems. When the hip arthritis symptoms persist and remain undetected, it is even possible that a second unnecessary back surgery could be performed. The following paper reported on patients who had MRI scans and multiple epidural injections and were subjected to repeat back surgeries, all while continuing to complain of their leg pain—the source of which was hip pathology.(7)

This is why some patients continue to experience hip pain after elective hip replacement surgery. One research study advised doctors to look for pain originating from different sources not directly linked to the replacement hardware, as something else must have been the problem.(8) This revelation comes a little late. I see patients who were misdiagnosed and their pain generators overlooked. They have hip pain and an MRI in their chart showing a herniated disc in the lower back. After they had back surgery, the hip arthritis pain remained.

This article should provide a cautionary note for patients who insist that the MRI is providing the evidence needed to end their arthritis pain. In one study of patients who received a hip replacement, researchers noted postoperative complications occurring in almost 20% of the patients. Dislocation was the most common complication, followed by wound infection.(9)

Included in those worries are fresh concerns about the amount of bone loss in the first surgery and the ability to perform a successful revision or future replacement surgery to replace worn-out hardware.(10) This causes obvious concern.

Bone Defects and Bone Death can this only be treated with hip replacement or medication?

For some patients, bone defects in the hip represent a great physical challenge. When the protective cartilage wears away on the “ball” of the hip joint (the femoral head), there can be direct contact with the pelvic acetabulum (part of the pelvis bone in which the femur is seated). For some patients with advanced arthritis or avascular necrosis (bone death) there may be the crunching and grinding of bone on bone.


The most-used procedure does not fix the femoral head, instead replacing it (hip replacement) through amputation of the head of the femur and addition of prosthesis (total hip arthroplasty). Since not everyone is suitable for or wants to have the procedure, researchers are exploring ways to fix the femoral head before it becomes unstable or collapses and requires artificial joint replacement.

One method is to patch the bone defects—this is autologous bone grafting. Some of the bone is cut into a patch in the hope that it will take root and grow. However, the amount of bone available for grafting is quite limited as case histories point out.(11)

Regenerating the bone is an appealing remedy, leading researchers to look at bone marrow stem cells, using one’s own stem cells to heal bone defects. In recent research doctors suggested stem cells. The injection of stem cells into the joint can initiate the healing environment in the affected hip, including the regrowth of bone in cases of osteonecrosis (bone death).(12)

The use of stem cells for the treatment of avascular necrosis (bone death due to interruption of the blood supply) of the femoral head presents a new and exciting remedial procedure that medicine is looking into. In pre-clinical studies, the use of stem cells uniformly demonstrates improvements in osteogenesis (bone growth) and angiogenesis (blood vessel formation). In clinical studies, groups treated with stem cells have shown significant improvements in patient-reported outcomes.(13)

Management and pain relief from hip arthritis

Medicine can offer many options for hip pain relief beyond drugs and medications. Research such as those studies above makes it clear that people with hip arthritis are too often told only about hip replacement as a treatment, so they do not even know about a nonsurgical arthritis treatment option that may be available beyond pain medication or “live with it.” Here is what researchers said in the journal Arthritis Care and Research (3): “Conservative treatment modalities in arthritis of hip or knee are underused, whereas the demand for surgery is rising substantially. To improve the use of conservative arthritis treatments, a more in-depth understanding of the reasons for patients’ treatment choice is required. This study identifies the reasons for choice of treatment in patients with hip or knee osteoarthritis.

Various treatment options were discussed: medication, exercise, physical therapy, injections, surgery, complementary and alternative treatment. Four key themes underlying the choice for or against a treatment were identified:

  1. treatment characteristics: expectations about its effectiveness and risks, the degree to which it can be personalized to a patient’s needs and wishes, and the accessibility of a treatment;
  2. personal investment: in terms of money and time;
  3. personal circumstances: age, body weight, comorbidities and previous experience with a treatment; and
  4. support and advice: from the patient’s social environment and healthcare providers.”

ConZip, Ultram NSAIDs for hip osteoarthritis

In this section we will explore pain-medications.

An April 2022 study (24) reported the following: “The use of tramadol among osteoarthritis patients has been increasing rapidly around the world, but population-based studies on its safety profile among osteoarthritis patients are scarce. (The researchers here) sought to determine if tramadol use in osteoarthritis patients is associated with increased risks of all-cause mortality, cardiovascular diseases (CVD), venous thromboembolism (VTE), and hip fractures compared with commonly prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or codeine.”

Study summary

  • Overall, 100,358 OA patients were included (average age: 68 years, 63% females).
  • All-cause mortality was higher for tramadol compared to NSAIDs
  • For cardiovascular diseases (CVD), no differences were observed between tramadol and NSAIDs.
  • Tramadol had a higher risk of venous thromboembolism (VTE) compared to diclofenac.
  • Tramadol also had a higher risk of hip fractures compared to diclofenac and Cox-2 inhibitors.
  • Osteoarthritis patients initiating tramadol have an increased risk of mortality, venous thromboembolism, and hip fractures within one year compared with commonly prescribed NSAIDs, but not with codeine.

The patient who has a recommendation for hip replacement. What they are telling us?

The patient who has been recommended to hip replacement will tell us:

  • The thought of a hip replacement surgery terrifies me because I do not know if I will be able to resume all the activities I love.
  • I have to find another way. I own my own construction business, I cannot be take this time off to recover.
  • I had hip replacement on the left side, it worked, but I do not want to go through all that again.

Sometimes someone will come into the office at the request of a loved one or spouse or family member who are concerned about the surgery and what the general anesthesia and the toll of a demanding recovery time may do to their loved one. Sometimes a person will come in because they are the caregiver for their spouse or older parent and cannot take the time off for the surgery and recovery. Sometimes they cannot take the time off from work.


Treated with medication and then hip replacement or arthroscopic surgery and then poor health

The feeling is that when traditional pain-relief treatments and pain medications have run their course and no longer relieve hip pain, hip replacement or arthroscopic surgery is readily available as options to the patients. There is an expectation that surgery fixes everything and improves general overall health and physical well-being and most importantly provides pain relief. There is a lot of expectation. Yet other research says these expectations are not met, and this is clearly cause for concern as post-surgical medications use and drugs for pain relief may be needed after surgery.

Presenting alternatives to hip replacement surgery is an important function in the patient–doctor relationship, as suggested in this recent study published in The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: (4)

“Arthroscopic surgery is commonly performed in the knee, shoulder, elbow, and hip. However, the role it plays in the management of osteoarthritis is controversial. Routine arthroscopic management of osteoarthritis was once common, but this practice has been recently scrutinized. Although some believe that there is no role for arthroscopic treatment in the management of osteoarthritis, it may be appropriate and beneficial in certain situations. The clinical success of such treatment may be rooted in appropriate patient selection and adherence to a specific surgical technique. Arthroscopy may serve as an effective and less invasive option than traditional methods of managing osteoarthritis.”

In other words, as controversial and unproven as arthroscopic surgery is, it may still be better than hip replacement. Far better than both as a first option, in my opinion, are the biomedicine treatments including Bone Marrow Aspirate and Platelet-Rich Plasma (PRP) Therapy. These are non-surgical options for pain relief.


The Importance of Bone Health in Hip Replacement

The physical healing of hip arthritis can be complex and complicated, especially if complex and complicated treatments are employed. Once failed surgery exacerbates the matter, it is even more difficult to remedy the hip, especially as the patient ages. The incidence of arthritis is constantly advancing with increased longevity. Aging also leads to an increasing number of patients with osteoporosis (decreased bone mass) who “need” hip replacement for osteoarthritis. Osteoporosis has three major potential complications in total hip arthroplasty: perioperative (that is, near the time of the surgery) fracture, an increased risk of periprosthetic fracture (fracture of bones near the implant), and late aseptic loosening (loosening of hip replacement components). A study examining the effects of osteoporosis on total hip replacement procedure outcome highlights the importance of an adequate study of calciumphosphorus metabolism in patients who are candidates for hip surgery, as well as the need to start a suitable therapy to recover the bone mass before surgery. Poor bone quality of the hip joint is an important risk factor limiting the durability and longevity of the hip replacement.(14) This may lead the patient into life-long use of medications and drugs.

However, if we are prepping the patient for hip replacement by strengthening the bone to hold the artificial devices, why not regrow the bone and cartilage and repair the tissue with the goal of avoiding surgery?

More Hip Problems that May Confuse the Diagnosis


Piriformis syndrome may cause pain in the buttocks, lower back, or down the leg. The piriformis muscle is in the buttocks, attaches to the pelvis and greater trochanter, and helps rotate the leg outward. The sciatic nerve is just beneath it. Occasionally the nerve is impinged beneath the piriformis muscle. When the muscle contracts, it pushes on the nerve, which causes the pain and its radiation down the leg. I rarely see true piriformis syndrome. Typically, the pain is at the enthesis of the piriformis or other buttocks muscles to the bone, and PRP usually heals that with one to three treatments.


The areas around the hip are covered with and protected by several bursal fluid filled sacs. Each bursa produces lubricating fluid and functions to reduce pressure and friction around the muscles and ligaments over bone. These bursae can become irritated from injury, excessive pressure, and overuse. Inflammation of a bursa is called bursitis. More often this diagnosis is actually a tendinitis or tendinosis. Nevertheless, PRP is usually the correct treatment. Certainly not steroids, like cortisone, which deteriorate the tissue, and can make it worse later.


There is normally a small amount of synovial fluid contained in the hip joint that allows the cartilage on the bones to slide on each other. An excess of this fluid, often caused by overuse or arthritis, can cause pressure and pain in the joint. The fluid comes from synovial tissue surrounding the joint.

I use an ultrasound to visualize the joint, and if an effusion is present, I numb the area and aspirate the fluid. At the same time, platelet rich plasma or stem cells can be injected through the same needle.

Effusions are removed to reduce the joint pressure and to eliminate dilution of the regenerating cells from the patient’s body.


Tendinitis occurs when a muscle is overused and pulls on the tendon that attaches it to the bone. In the hip, tendons perform an important role by keeping strong muscles attached to the femur (thighbone) as the legs move. One kind of tendinitis that occurs as a result of overuse is called iliacus tendinitis or iliopsoas tendinitis. The iliac muscle, which starts at the hip bone, and the psoas muscle, which starts in your lower spine, are used when lifting the leg toward the chest. They come together in a tendon at the top of the femur, and that is the point where tendinitis occurs. The problems of the hip can often be treated with Stem Cell Therapy and Platelet-Rich Plasma Therapy. In order to determine if you are a good candidate for this type of procedure, you need to be fully
evaluated by a physician who has significant experience with hip pain.


Unfortunately, too many patients come to me after a hip replacement or other “elective” surgery. The most recent disaster is happening to a very old friend of mine. He is 65 years old, and had both hips replaced for arthritis a few years ago. I previously told him not to do the surgeries and that he really didn’t need them. We had dinner last week, and he told me of an “odd” situation that occurs around his surgical scars. Occasionally, the scar and surrounding tissue becomes red and swollen. None of his doctors can figure out why. Allergy to the prosthetic metal, plastic, or glue inside his body? I didn’t pay much attention since it didn’t sound that bad. He sent me  photos of a recent out-break. The area of redness and swelling was about four inches by eight inches. I told him to go directly to the ER since it looked like an infection. He was told by the ER doc that he didn’t know what to do, and that my friend should see a dermatologist.

Unfortunately, no specialist was available for several days in the rural area where my friend lives. I am on pins and needles waiting for the diagnosis, if anyone can figure it out. My guess is that my friend will have to have his prostheses removed and replaced with another material, with the hope that the “allergy” will not return. To me the skin looked so inflamed that if no infection was present, it certainly could occur anytime. I have not told him yet what I am thinking, and am glad this book will not be published for him to read for a couple more months.

I’m not going to implant you with terrible stories of what I have seen after surgeries on many different parts of the body. Since the time I became involved in surgery in 1989, I have seen more bad outcomes than I care to remember. And let me make it clear that I respect surgeons for the difficult and complex work that they do. To me, they are the masters of medicine. Not many of us are willing to bear such standards and responsibilities. However, I must say that in my humble opinion, most elective surgeries should not be done for arthritis. The risks are just too high. Medicine can offer many options for hip pain relief beyond drugs and medications, AND, hip surgery for many people.



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2 Stacey D, Taljaard M, Dervin G, Tugwell P, O’Connor AM, Pomey MP, Boland L, Beach S, Meltzer D, Hawker G. Impact of patient decision aids on appropriate and timely access to hip or knee arthroplasty for osteoarthritis: a randomized controlled trial. Osteoarthritis Cartilage. 2016 Jan;24(1):99-107.
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13 Houdek MT, Wyles CC, Martin JR, Sierra RJ. Stem cell treatment for avascular necrosis of the femoral head: current perspectives. Stem Cells Cloning. 2014 Apr 9;7:65-70. eCollection 2014.
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