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05 December 2016Last updated
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Real Life

‘I’m pain-free after double knee surgery’

Jane Hilton, 57, a mother of four and grandmother of seven, loved her active life – until she started suffering from osteoarthritis

As told to Kirsty English
22 Nov 2016 | 04:08 pm
  • Source:Shutterstock Image 1 of 3
  • Jane Hilton

    Source:Supplied Image 2 of 3
  • From not even being able to kneel or stand up without much effort and pain, I’ve gone from strength to strength, building up to more activity.

    Source:Supplied Image 3 of 3

As a mum of a daughter, a son and twin girls, I’ve never had much time to sit and relax – and that’s the way I’ve always liked it. As the family grew up, we enjoyed many weekends exploring the beautiful countryside on our doorstep in Leeds, UK, and going on nature walks with the children. And as soon as our four left home, my husband of 34 years and I embarked on our hill climbing ambitions.

Our favourite fell climbs were in the Lake District, about an hour’s drive away, and the Yorkshire Dales, about 20 minutes away.

We really started tackling longer distances when I was 41 and working as an HR manager for a large veterinary company in Leeds. I looked forward to the weekends when I’d don my hiking boots and waterproofs – it was often rainy – and set off on another adventure complete with snacks, flash and first-aid kit.

Then, in April 2009, when I was 49, I was outdoors when my right knee gave way. It felt like my knee joint had folded in half. I was with my husband, and he managed to get me home. At first, I thought it was a tendon problem and it would improve with time. But it didn’t.

We went to a GP, who referred me straightaway to a nearby hospital. My husband drove me there.

Doctors there diagnosed osteoarthritis in my inner knee, which meant my bone was gradually deteriorating. Osteoarthritis is a condition that causes joints to become painful and stiff. It’s a common type of arthritis and can run in families.

I realised it was a long-term problem as my mother had osteoarthritis in her spine, so I had some knowledge of the condition. I wasn’t too concerned as I assumed it could be easily treated.

A doctor decided the best treatment would be an arthroscopy, a surgical procedure on my joint where an arthroscope, also known as an endoscope, would be inserted into my knee to treat the damaged area.

But six weeks later, during a follow-up appointment, I got the shock of my life.

The doctor asked, ‘How’s your knee?’

I said, ‘Not much difference.’

He replied, ‘In that case I’m afraid you’re going to need a knee replacement.’

I left the consulting room and went to meet my husband. As we walked out, I tried to hold back the tears, but couldn’t. I couldn’t believe my knee pain required such major surgery.

I wanted to get a second opinion so a week later, I went back to my GP and he referred me to a different hospital.

A few months later, in late February 2010, I had another arthroscopy in the hope this would fix the knee. But in June 2010 my right knee gave way again in a shopping centre. The pain was excruciating and I ended up back at my GP’s office.

This time I was referred to a hospital for steroid injections.

These eased the pain for a few weeks, but the agony returned. At its worse, I couldn’t kneel down and if I sat down, I had to think hard about how I would get up again. It was a nightmare because it was so painful.

I remember trying to rock one of my grandchildren in my arms but the agony of standing up was too much to bear.

The frequent trips to the hospital for steroid injections went on for months and I was on the maximum dose. During a hospital appointment for an injection about three years ago, I was again told I needed a knee replacement. But I was scared stiff when a doctor handed me a leaflet, saying this is everything I needed to know.

As my eyes scanned the words and I read ‘major operation’ and ‘get your affairs in order…’ I almost collapsed. If it was a life-threatening procedure, then ‘no thank you’, I thought.

On good days when the pain was less I was still able to do some gentle walking, and this kept me going. But I also knew that my osteoarthritis was steadily getting worse.

By now, my left knee had become painful too and I could tell my condition was deteriorating rapidly. Walking was becoming a real problem. I couldn’t walk around the supermarket and if I went to a shopping centre I could only get halfway around before having to sit down. The pain was starting to stop me from doing everyday chores.

One of the turning points came when I went to my GP for a steroid injection and the usual doctor who carried out the procedure wasn’t there. A different doctor poked and prodded my knee trying to find the best place for the needle and by the time she’d finished, I was in tears. I couldn’t cope with the pain any more.

Years had passed with my knees getting steadily worse. By September last year, I had not been able to put on a pair of walking boots for three years because the pain of even walking a few steps was so debilitating. Hill climbing was out of the question, which devastated me. So I went back to my GP again and he referred me for an X-ray on my left knee because that knee was now more painful than the right one.

I remember going on a holiday to Lanzarote in the Canary Islands a few weeks after the X-ray, and I couldn’t walk anywhere. I realised that my quality of life was non-existent and I felt old before my time. I knew something had to be done.

I’d seen various consultants over the years but kept putting off having surgery as I did not feel confident about making 
the decision. But on returning from Lanzarote, I was referred to Spire Leeds Hospital, and to Dr Aaron Ng, consultant orthopaedic surgeon.

He said the X-ray showed that a piece of bone had chipped off in my left knee, in addition to the osteoarthritis. The pain was incredible. It was the worst pain I’d ever experienced.

‘It’s pointless fixing the bone in your knee because there’s no cartilage,’ he said. ‘I would recommend a partial replacement of the left knee.’

He reassured me that everything would be OK and I felt instantly comfortable with him. I knew then surgery was my only option.

I underwent two partial knee replacements [unicompartmental knee replacement] within four months. The first left partial knee replacement took place a few days before Christmas 2015. The surgery took between 60 and 90 minutes. 
I was quite nervous beforehand. I had both surgeries done by spinal anaesthesia and light sedation so the recovery time was much quicker.

It took doctors about 20 minutes to prep me for the spinal. I had a cannula put in my arm to feed sedatives into my bloodstream. It was also later used to give me antibiotics intravenously. Then they popped the spinal into my back. As there is a risk of deep-vein thrombosis [DVT] after such procedures, a pump was used to make sure blood circulated around my leg.

Partial knee replacement replaces only the damaged part of the knees and avoids dislocation of the kneecap. During the surgery, Dr Ng removed the worn out cartilage and resurfaced with metal components, which are fixed on to the bones using bone cement. I had my surgery at 6pm and amazingly, I was working on my iPad answering emails the next morning!

The same day, a team of physios encouraged me to walk up and down stairs using walking sticks to support me. They asked me to bend my leg if possible, and I used ice to keep the swelling down. As for painkillers, I spent two days on strong pain relief and paracetamol – but no morphine. I spent just three nights in hospital.

A programme of physiotherapy followed when I was sent home armed with paracetamol and a two-week supply of blood-thinning tablets to avoid DVT. I only took one strong painkiller and managed the rest of the time on paracetamol.

There was a bit of stiffness in the first six weeks. It was painful at first to bend the knee but after a few days it was fine. I used walking sticks to support myself. The most incredible thing for me was that my knee had no pain. I had a check-up with the surgeon after six weeks and an X-ray at eight weeks to check all was well. The stitches were dissolvable so no need to remove them.

I was able to return to work six weeks after surgery and to drive after nine weeks. The recovery was so quick and life-changing, it highlighted the pain I still felt in my right knee. So, four months later, I had the other one done too. My second right partial knee replacement took place in April this year. This time I wasn’t scared at all.

Once again, the physios were keen to get me moving straight away with knee exercises. When outside, I used two walking sticks until week six, and then one stick until week eight.

Today, just months after partial knee replacement surgery in both knees, I’m back on my feet, averaging 5km walks and already planning my first long hike in my favourite walking location – the Lake District.

Of course, I blame the hill climbing for the wear and tear in my knees. The more you use these joints, the more they wear out and I think it was the impact of coming down the hills that caused the bother.

I’m now completely pain-free and they feel very natural, like my own knees. I can go for a walk in the park without a second thought. And I can take the grandchildren to the local nature reserves – their first steps into the countryside. I’ve started taking long walks and building up steadily to more activity. I cannot wait to strap on my walking boots and start hiking again.

In September, my husband and I went to Poole in Dorset, UK, on holiday and did lots of walking. I’ve gone from strength to strength. Soon, I will build up to climbing fells again.

People don’t appreciate their knees until they haven’t got them. I have a four-and-a-half-inch scar across both knees – visible but fading fast. It’s a small price to pay.

Two weeks after my second knee operation, my husband suggested we go to a shopping centre. He hired a wheelchair, knowing I couldn’t walk the whole distance across the mall so soon after the procedure.

At the time, I was wearing shorts with a dressing on the right knee. The scar on my left knee was visible and a woman came up to me and asked if I’d had a knee replacement. She told me about the pain she suffered and if I would recommend a knee replacement. I told her straightaway – if you’re in that much pain, do it.

Anyone who needs this type of knee surgery should consider having it done. It’s truly life-changing.

As told to Kirsty English

As told to Kirsty English