In many cases, it’s best to first explore nonsurgical options. By doing so, you may be able to postpone – or even eliminate – the need for surgery altogether. At the very least, it can give you the reassurance that once you do sign on for surgery, you will have checked out the options thoroughly and made an informed choice.

Knowing the basics about the surgeries for your particular joint problem can help you discuss your options with your surgeon, understand the pros and cons of each surgery, and then decide what is right for you.

Throughout this series, knowing exactly what surgery you’re having is key – for ensuring that you prepare properly and for guaranteeing proper payment by your insurance company.

Find a surgeon and then find another one

Aside from your decision to have surgery, your most important decision will be the surgeon who will perform it. There are many ways to locate an orthopaedic surgeon: through your insurance plan or a referral from your doctor; through recommendations from friends or other health professionals; or through orthopaedic hospitals, medical centers or private practices.

If your surgeon tells you that you’re not a candidate for surgery but you feel ready for it, or if he says you need surgery and you want to make sure the procedure he’s recommending is the right one for you, you’ll want to get a second opinion.

“Second opinions are one of the options we have for dealing with uncertainty,” says Nortin M. Hadler, MD, professor of medicine at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and a rheumatologist at UNC Hospitals. A second opinion can help you get comfortable with a diagnosis or make a decision when considering surgery or an experimental drug, treatment or procedure.

“You need to do whatever it takes to achieve that level of comfort,” adds Joseph D. Zuckerman, MD, professor and chairman of New York University’s Hospital for Joint Diseases, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery.

Getting a second opinion – although it took years to do so – paid off for Len Vraniak, a 41-year-old media strategist in Arlington, Va. Eight years ago, an orthopaedic surgeon told Vraniak he was too young for joint-replacement surgery. So, for the next five years he coped with the pain in his hip as best he could. But a new job and a new insurance plan meant seeing a new primary care physician, who prompted him to see a new surgeon. Learning that the life expectancies of new joints have increased made Vraniak willing to take the risk.

So, three years ago, at age 38, he underwent total hip replacement and hasn’t regretted it for a minute. “My pain is gone completely,” he says.

Ron Harnish, on the other hand, wishes he had gotten a second opinion when his orthopaedic surgeon told him two years ago, at age 56, he was too young to consider joint-replacement surgery and that a less-invasive procedure was “just a few years away.” Harnish, who, at the time, was a police detective in Florida, decided to wait for the less-invasive surgery.

His bad knees, however, forced him into early retirement, costing him his insurance. Retiring to North Carolina, he found a new orthopaedic surgeon who told him the surgery he had been waiting on already was being performed throughout the country. Angry, Harnish now wonders how he’ll afford the double knee surgery he needs, now that he’ll be paying out of pocket.