Years of standing, walking, and other strenuous activities or accidents often cause painful, damaged joints that only orthopaedic specialists can fix. Estimates of the number of joints in the human body vary according to how one defines the term joint, but modern consensus supports a total of 360.
While some are fixed, such as the sternum, ribs and those that make up the skull, others form an articulation that enables movement in one or more planes. The latter can differ widely in size, ranging from the phalanges in the fingers and toes to the much larger and more complex shoulder, knee and hip joints.
Because these articulating joints are in constant use, subject to physical wear and tear and exposed to the risk of injury, they frequently require medical attention, and this has led to the evolution of a medical discipline known as orthopaedics.
What orthopaedic specialists do
The ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks were among the genre’s founders, the latter treating fractures and correcting spinal deformities in children and the others mainly repairing their soldiers’ broken bones. Today’s specialists routinely perform procedures to restore their patients’ quality of life. Some may be non-surgical, while others involve open or minimally invasive surgery. Here are some examples of each.
- Non-surgical treatments
These include using casts and braces to immobilise fractured limbs or treat Achilles tendinitis and sprained ankles. Orthopaedic specialists also often perform joint manipulations or distension procedures that involve injecting sterile water into the joint capsule. Other non-surgical options might include physiotherapy and platelet-rich plasma injections to accelerate healing.
Incidentally, based on the early Greek applications, the discipline’s name is a contraction of “orthos” and “paedia”, the Greek words for “straight” and “child”. Modern musculoskeletal specialists now use tailor-made adjustable body casts to correct children’s spinal deformities like scoliosis and kyphosis.
- Open surgery in orthopaedics
Undoubtedly, the most significant breakthrough in orthopaedic surgery was the first successful attempt to replace a damaged joint with a prosthesis. The procedure is demanding for the surgeon, and although it is frequently life-changing, patients undergoing conventional open surgery for joint replacement (arthroplasty) face a significant risk of complications and an extended recovery period.
Accurate alignment of the implanted prosthetics is crucial to the success of joint replacement. Some orthopaedic surgeons like Dr Jan de Vos of Pretoria’s Wilgers Life Clinic are accredited to perform robot-assisted techniques that ensure the prosthetic components used in knee replacement surgery will always be perfectly aligned.
- Minimally invasive orthopaedic procedures
First, X-rays and, later, the arthroscope, an optical device that enables the user to inspect the internal structure of a joint, were invaluable additions to the tools available to orthopaedic specialists. However, while X-rays provide a negative image that is often hard to interpret, arthroscopy offers a full-colour, magnified, detailed image. Once in position, a specialist can make additional tiny incisions to insert miniature instruments and perform several orthopaedic surgical procedures, including meniscus and rotator cuff repairs and even arthroscopic knee replacements.
Finding your orthopaedic specialists
The team led by Dr Jan de Vos at the Wilgers Life Clinic in Pretoria has gained national and international fame for its surgical prowess. Why not get in touch to learn more about how it can help improve your quality of life?