Surgery & Arthritis with Mr. Gavin McHugh

Mr. Gavin McHugh joins Arthritis Ireland’s Chief Executive Grainne O’Leary to speak about Surgery and Arthritis

Mr Gavin McHugh UPMC Sports Surgery Clinic





Mr Gavin McHugh is a Consultant Orthopaedic Surgeon specialising in Total Knee Replacement, Total Hip Replacement and Partial Knee Replacement at UPMC Sports Surgery Clinic.

I suppose I would stop you there in using the word necessary as quite often when it comes to a joint replacement strictly speaking it is not necessary it is whether somebody would benefit from it and I think it is important to make that little bit of distinction as ultimately it is up to the person and it is whether or not they decide to go ahead.

It is not like a broken leg that absolutely needs to be fixed. In general, you can look at these things in terms of pain and disability. The overriding factor that drives someone to have a joint replacement is pain. The vast majority of people has pain. Disability can come into it but it is generally a secondary thing and I will talk about that again.

In terms of the pain, again, we can go into as much detail as you want. For me one of the deal breakers is night pain especially with the hip you will find that people get to the point where they are wakening from sleep 1-6 times every night or most nights. Ultimately, that is when you would benefit from having something done.

In terms of pain throughout the day or with activities if they are holding someone back from doing the activities that they want to do or indeed affecting their quality of life and it is not controlled then that is often a time to start thinking about having something done.

We are often taught to see if the conservative measures have been exhausted and that is just a way of saying yeah, we have dealt with all that and it is now time to talk surgery. That is something that is really important to all of us as well. Ultimately, not only can you potentially gain months and even years without having to have surgery, you can potentially set yourself up much better off in the event that you do require surgery. Things like weight loss that we will speak about again can be very important and pure strengthening activities so anything that works again particularly from the hip and knee point of view like your quads and glutes in particular can benefit.

Strictly around the hip I find a lot of stretching activities can actually precipitate more symptoms rather than improve things but within reason keeping active tends to do good and not bad.

From an analgesia point of view simple analgise such as paracetamol which everyone turns their noses up at initially but I mean it comes with a very low side effect profile and it is often worth while trying to just take the age off of things and as you move up you can then mind that with anti-inflammatories.

Opiate type of medications for the vast majority of people tend to avoid it. They tend to come with a lot of side effects and they don’t really work particularly well for musculoskeletal type pain. They work better for other types of pain like cancer pain and in that they have a hugely important role but for us for joint pain they are no great at relieving it and even if they do with time you tend to become tolerant to it so you don’t get the effects with time so for me just paracetamol and anti-inflammatories.

Again, that is when you have to weigh up how it is affecting you day to day and you have more to gain than you do to lose anyway and when somebody’s quality of life is disrupted to an extent where they have more to gain than they do to lose then that is when it is worth while considering. I see people who get a little bit of groin pain for example on the 16th or 17th hole of a golf course and they play once a month and that’s it.

I also see people who would wake 6 or 7 times every night and I’ve seen someone who has slept in an armchair for two years because they have not been able to lie down flat in bed and who could take 20 minutes to get to the bathroom.

They are the two different ends of the spectrum; the vast majority of people are somewhere in between and again you have to see if you are leaning more towards the severe side of the spectrum or are you leaning more towards the conservative side of the spectrum where your paracetamol helps. This is something that I always try to say and it is that you don’t have to be as bad as people make it out to get a joint replacement and we know from loads of systems by scoring patients and if you divide them up in terms of severity the group that would benefit the most from a hip or knee replacement are the ones with moderate symptoms and it is very subjective as to what is classed as mild or moderate symptoms but the moderate group are the people who are still just about able to do their job and normal day to day activity and in many ways they are ready to hit the ground running after they get the joint done and they will rehab quite quickly.

Whereas the really severe group the people I spoke about that have slept on an arm chair for 2 years well they have a huge amount of work to do following the surgery in terms of getting back to their morbid level. There is a happy medium, it is often not as bad as you think and with hips especially I find that people come in and they almost feel like a fraud and they think they are not bad enough. This is what a hip does to people, a hip slowly drags someone down along with everyone around them who is aware like their husbands, wives and children. Everyone around them will be saying “would you ever go and get that fixed, your always complaining” and the response usually is I’m not that bad as it is in our human nature to adapt and cope with things and we manage to get on with it and generally it is not that they are in denial, they don’t actually realise they are as bad and I often put it as a background noise that until you turn off that noise then you realise. It is only after people get their joints replaced that they then realise how bad they were prior to the surgery.

Joint replacement is still ultimately a joint replacement and it has moved on I think an awful lot in terms of how we go about it and the safety profile of it compared to 40 or 50 years ago and as I say it comes with significant risks although they are rare thankfully. The odds are very much in your favour so if you look at satisfaction rates after a hip replacement then you are talking 96/97% which is pretty hard to replicate in many other surgery’s that are performed.

It comes with the standard risks like infection, infection is our nemesis and again if a surgeon has said that they have never had an infection in their practice then it is nonsense and everyone gets them it is just a fact of life and trust me we take the upmost precautions trying to avoid that but when you’re talking about a joint infection your talking 1 in every 300 which is not that common but it is still a risk you take when you are considering rolling that dice.

Things like clots like a pulmonary embolism is a risk factor that you are talking maybe 1 in 500 to 1 in 1000 and that is the sort of rate now a days and how do we get around that we give you foot pumps we give you stockings to increase circulation but most importantly we get people up quickly and we get lots and lots of joints now immobilised in the same day.

The quicker we get people up the lower that risk becomes and some people are usually given some form of blood thinner then after to help prevent it. Nothing can really reduce risk because some people are more prone than others but thankfully now a days it is uncommon.

Then more specific things with regard to the joints with the knee stiffness would be one of our main issues and a knee replacement can end up stiffening the knee because the knee is hard work and as I say its not like you just get a hip for free but with a knee you most certainly earn it in terms of the recovery and it is not a 6 week job but it is a 6 month job in terms of that recovery and I think it is important that people know it is going to be sore.

Then with regard to the hip, the hip popping out of the socket or dislocating again in comparison to say 20/30 years ago when dislocation rates were at 5% it is much less common now it is a 1 in 200 or 300 type of chance we use a bigger head in terms of the prosthesis so essentially it has to jump the radius in order to get out.

Years ago, there was a 22-millimetre head that we used whereas nowadays most surgeons will use a 32- or 36-millimetre head and that comes with a lot more stability.

We always quote things in terms of damage to the bone or the nerves around the area but again it tends to be very rare now and it is unlikely that something like that actually happens during surgery.

Absolutely, the better shape you are in before surgery the better chance you have of doing better afterwards. Again, particularly with regards to the knee and if you look at the quad muscles on the front of your thigh which allow you to straighten your leg they are essentially an engine for the knee and they are often extremely weak and are often the cause of the arthritis process as people get a lot of inhibition, it is like your brain turns off the muscles in order to protect the joint which I think actually makes the joint worse.

Unfortunately, when it comes to recovery and getting the knee to behave like it should then you need strong quads. There often has to be work put in before hand in order to strengthen up and that is the number one thing that will improve their outcome for them. When you think of getting up after a joint replacement and mobilising with crutches the more weight you are carrying then the harder it is going to be especially for the first couple of days.

In terms of joint replacements there is actually not really a lot of difference as such. Lets focus on the hip first of all, broadly speaking you can offer a cement hip replacement as in one that is essentially glued in or grouted into the bone and that has a rough coating over the surface of it and it allows the bone to then grow onto the surface with it with time and that’s when it gets its fix as such but within that then because you have got the ball and socket you have then got two different sides so you can then have it cemented on one side like the cup or vice versa.

In general, it varies hugely some surgeons will use one type or the other for certain cohorts of patients and I tend to use the cementing for most of my patients and again that is just my preference. Ultimately, a lot of it comes down to what you are most experienced using you are most likely to get the best outcome with the prosthesis that you are most familiar with.

Knee replacements come with cemented and cement less options and increasingly now we are seeing a rise in cement less options but the vast majority of knee replacements are still cemented into place.

There are subtle differences in the mechanisms of how two components in the knee fit and interact together, some have a dish but that’s getting into too much detail. Whatever works best for the surgeon is the way to look at it.

Within knees then as well you can replace the whole joint or you can replace part of the joint which is a partial knee replacement and again I often say to people that the first thing I do when I look at someone for surgery is can I get away with a partial knee replacement and quite often you just end up replacing the knuckle on the inside and it is a much smaller operation.

Smaller operations in general come with a lot less risk and come with a quicker recovery with a more natural feeling in the knee after. Ultimately, roughly 40% of the patients that I would see would be suitable for a partial knee replacement and it is something that I need to bear in mind and again the least you can put someone through is the best way to think about it.

This is the problem where it comes to expectations because I sometimes put people on the spot and say prosthesis can last a year which is possible because the bone can fracture around it, it could subside, you could get an infection and it could be out in a years’ time or less even but on average they are going to last very well we have the benefit now of joint registries across the world some of which have been going on for 30/40 years but the UK are coming up to their 20th year this year and it tends to mirror our practice and we have an Irish joint registry but it is only in its infantry stage at the moment. If you look at the figures 10 years is often a nice length of time for a replacement to last and it is actually very similar in a hip and knee.

The average hip and knee prosthesis have a 10-year survival and I say to people that does not mean you have to come and trade it in after 10 years if it is still going strong. Essentially you have a 1 in 25 chance of it not lasting 10 years or more.

I replaced a lady’s hip their yesterday and she had her other hip replaced 29 years ago a cemented hip and it is going strong not a problem. One way of looking at it although getting figures for it may be hard is what are the chances in your lifetime that its going to be done again and ultimately that brings the whole age spectrum into it and if you are 80 years of age and you are getting a joint replacement then it is almost certainly going to be fine.

If you are 40 years of age and you are getting a joint replacement the implications are a lot more and not only need to be revised but it might need to be done again and the way to think of it is a mechanical set just getting bigger every time and you need to bring in bigger toys to allow you to fix the problems.

It is an important factor to bear in mind and it is not as if we always push conservative measures but in young people but we are going to try our best. If an injection is giving some relief then you are going to try it again but you try your best to just push people out that other couple of years and they may not think that it is a huge thing but it actually if it gets them a couple of years further down the line it is a big deal potentially 20 years down that line and again if we go back to the same factors of quality of life.

If your 40 years of age as far as I am concerned and your looking at a joint replacement, the diagnosis is correct well then so be it. As far as people are aware that yes there is a chance that it could be done again n their lifetime then I don’t see the sense in riding out 20 years of a poor quality of life just to get that joint replacement and that makes no sense to me.

Absolutely, it is amazing to see the difference and I mean chronological ages and physiological age and it is absolutely amazing the difference. I suppose I have the benefit of getting to look in at peoples lives all the time and you see people who come in and they are 50 years of age and they look about 80. You see 80-year olds who would pass for 50 and that is the discrepancy that is there and it literally is plus or minus 30 years how they look, act and feel.

I replaced a 93 year old gentleman’s knee a few months ago and essentially his knee was pointing the wrong direction and he couldn’t do anything and after that surgery he was back playing golf at 8 weeks and again am I going to say that everyone can get to that absolutely not but it shows that it is possible and at the opposite ends of the spectrum we can say your too young and I think that is wrong.

The one thing that younger people need to realise is that there are to aspects to it. Firstly, they have a lot longer to go in terms of their life expectancy and for some people it could be 40-50 years maybe even more.

The second thing is that younger people tend to be a lot more active so potentially they are going to use up a joint sooner so there are two ways to look at that why they may get through getting it done again.

It is funny you say that because some patients are pretty well informed and I’ve had people come and see me and say I read about this and these are the exact symptoms I have but it is a little bit of a dangerous game to play someone coming in saying what they would like you to do. I will go back to what is on the menu is what the surgeon uses routinely. We are living in a different world years ago saying that’s what we needed and if it is a dictatorship for them then so be it. In that regard there is safety of little knowledge and by reading a lot you can actually end up confusing yourself more by going a little bit beyond that especially with internet because what you are relying on is not necessarily a fact and we can talk about things like stem cells and all these different things that come with a huge internet profile but there is very little evidence for it and the leading things in terms of joint replacement.

What you need is something that has been tried and tested and has been around for a few years because then essentially you are not a part of an experiment it is only with time that we know how well something will work.

From a hip and knee point of view all joints are pre-assessed and they have a pre-operative assessment and it is a normal medical check to make sure someone is optimising from surgery, that is probably the best way to look at it.

They are seen by a doctor and a nurse and they get a little bit of history taken of their previous medical problems, their medication is looked into, their bloods get taken as well so we can examine things like your blood count and your kidney profile that type of thing.

They will also get a trace of their heart or an ECG as it is called. If necessary some patients will get something called and echocardiogram which is an ultrasound scan of their heart but again the more information that we have then there is a lot less risk in many ways. If we know that something is there then it is rarely ever a problem and many patients sail through these things without any issue that can cause trouble afterwards or something that was diagnosed.

Based on that pre-assessment, if more detail is needed well then, we can ask a cardiologist or a respiratory physio whoever is required, to give the go ahead. The vast majority of people will just sail through that there is no problem. Obviously, people that comer with more baggage, more problems as such then we need to pause for that little bit longer to make sure they can be done.

The higher risk patients who can only be done in hospital with a backup its actually quite rare now it is a very small minority of patients who are not suitable for whatever hospital they are attending.

What I say to people when they are struggling the first day or two is that they are discharged the same day and truth be told people going home the same day I don’t prescribe it as such but partial knee is often two nights in hospital and a full knee replacement is 3 nights and a hip is 2/3 nights with us and I find that that is just the happy medium and people are going home because their pain is controlled and they are safe, mobile and confident to do things. Some people that day they are flying around but they are a lacking confidence a little bit and just would not trust it so I think a couple of days is absolutely fine.

I think especially with hip some people are pleasantly surprised the first couple of days in how quickly they improve and the first day can be tricky but by the second day they are really starting to get going and then they are usually mobile and independent going up and down to the bathroom.

Most people with a hip or knee replacement will be using crutches for the first 1 to 4 weeks depending on how they got on and how strong they are and how their pain is as such but they are better off anticipating in many ways.

Not so much occupational therapy but occupational therapy is more changing things in their home and again you don’t really need modifications like that now. A lot of the old precautions and different things that used to be done have changed. We still get people to lie on their back for the first few weeks to help. A lot of these precautions were designed to help stop the hip from popping out of the socket as such and as I say that risk is much lower now a days and you can pull back a bit on that.

In general, in relation to physiotherapy I would say yes and no because I am firmly of the belief that less is more with the hip and I frequently see people over doing it and irritating tendon muscles and other things around that area I believe just need a few weeks to heal and settle down.

The knee as we spoke about needs to be moved and needs to get going and that would take a bit of work with  a physiotherapist afterwards and as much as anything the exercises are easy, they are very simple in terms of what to do but it is about having someone there going to give you a bit of encouragement saying “come on you can do two more” or knows when it is time to push you a little bit harder and some people like a personal trainer and some people don’t and for some people they absolutely love having someone there telling them what to do.

I will often see the people who need the motivation after a joint replacement and then I will see other people who I need to pullback from overworking their joint replacement.

A lot of people who can work from home, particularly if they are self-employed they could be on their laptop doing a bit of work the following day from their discharge. If people can free up a week or two just for their own headspace I think that is very important.

The opposite of that spectrum like manual work for example climbing up ladders and working on roofs then they could be out for ¾ months maybe even more, depending on what they do and when they will be signed off to be considered safe.

Replacements exist for most joints and my area is obviously hip and knee but there is an increase in shoulder replacements, elbow replacements would be a small enough number but again weight bearing joints are much more likely to cause problems and that is why the number of hip and knees outweighs everything by about 6 times and that is always going to be the case because different joints just function differently.

Ankle replacements are becoming more common nowadays also and for other joints you have other options such as fusions. For example, it was very common to fuse the ankle to stiffen it instead of replacing it but I am now aware that people are starting to replace ankles more frequently.

The hip joint in many ways is quite simple with the ball and screws and the mechanics of other joints do not work the same and it has been harder to replicate with replacements and that is part of the reason for that.

In terms of going back to the knee you have to see if there is any other option than replacing the knee and there is a partial knee replacement as well as that knees will be suitable for something called an osteotomy which sounds barbaric but it is essentially cutting through the tibia bone usually but it can be the femur to realign their leg. If all their pain is on the inside of their leg and they are loading the inside of their leg and if you look around you may often see someone with a bow in their leg well that is loading one side of the leg much more and if you potentially unload that area as such by straightening their leg then you can take away the pain in their leg.

For younger people in particular for example, if you are 20 years of age and you have well established arthritis on the inside of your knee well you are not really going to be able to say that a replacement is an option so that is when something like an osteotomy comes in.

I think there is a nice balance between being a little bit informed and knowing what your getting but not reading too far into it and sometimes people stress themselves out too much and whether they like it or not they have to place their trust in me or whoever the surgeon is for some people it is like getting on an airplane you have to trust the plot. You will not have a list of questions for the pilot so there is an inherent trust you have to give to the surgeon. You are reliant on the surgeon to do their part and then afterwards they can worry about doing their part and in that regard, you find out as the journey goes on because lots and lots of questions before hand are going to progress as you move on that journey and it is often a better way to do it knowing a bit but not worrying yourself either. If it is 8 weeks down the line just focus on getting through today. A knee replacement is often really sore afterwards and you have got to be able to trust me. You have to think of it as though today is sore tomorrow will be better and then they know that they can trust you in that regard.

My main tip then is really to just make sure you have yourself fit and strong but there is very much a happy medium there and if you can hardly walk because your hip is so worn then there is only so much prehabilitation you can do by doing your exercises before hand and there is no point in losing any momentum before you even start the journey. I spoke much earlier about the disability and forgot to go back to it and it is something particularly with the hip and knee that we see. You have your pain aspect but then when a joint is worn, from a hip point of view you have trouble getting your shoes and socks on, trouble getting out of the car, getting up and down the stairs.

For the knee the trouble is behind you knee cap and you actually may have trouble even standing and this is something we spoke about as we get older in general the more baggage you carry in terms of that disability is then harder to manage.

I often speak to people about the risk of a fall, if you have got pain every so often and the leg wants to go then you are at a risk of falling and breaking your hip as such so people looking to avoid an operation isn’t the answer and you are here saying what can I do to maximise the chances of getting someone back being fit again in that regard. The last thing you need if you are in your 80’s is something pulling you way down as far as I am concerned you need everything going for you.

For further information on Total Hip and Knee Replacement Surgery at UPMC Sports Surgery Clinic, please contact
Date: 11th January 2024
Location: Online
This event is free of charge