When osteoarthritis (OA) damages a hip to the point that every movement causes pain, replacing the joint with a prosthesis can restore the ability to function pain-free. But for many people – particularly younger, more active ones – an artificial joint is not a permanent fix. Joint replacements  can fail over time, often necessitating further, more difficult surgery. By better understanding what causes hip implants to fail – or alternatively what makes others last – researchers are gaining new understandings that may improve implant longevity and make them an appropriate and lasting option for more people.

While much of the research focuses on materials and design of the implants themselves, researchers are also examining individuals’ responses to implants, says Joshua Jacobs, MD, professor and chairman of orthopaedic surgery at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. This could lead not only to improvements in design and materials but potentially to tests that could indicate the best implant for an individual before surgery and the use of agents to prevent implant problems after surgery.

If you anticipate a hip replacement, or revision, in your future, here’s how these two areas of research may make a difference.

Focusing on the Prosthesis

When doctors want to know what makes implants work – or not –  the best place to look is at the implants themselves.  “When prostheses are removed during revision surgery, they can be analyzed by a variety of analytic techniques to try to understand the reasons they may have failed,” says Dr. Jacobs. Similarly, successful implants that are removed post-mortem give unique information about the factors associated with success.

“We have learned a good deal about the way implants perform in the human body in a way we can’t otherwise by actually examining retrieved devices,” he says.