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Total Wrist Replacement: A Guide to Understanding Surgical Techniques

Total wrist replacement is a surgical procedure that involves replacing the damaged wrist joint with an artificial joint. This procedure is typically performed to relieve pain and improve function in patients with severe wrist arthritis or other wrist conditions that have not responded to conservative treatments. Understanding the surgical techniques involved in total wrist replacement can help patients make informed decisions about their treatment options and have realistic expectations for their recovery.

The Anatomy of the Wrist

Before delving into the details of total wrist replacement surgery, it is important to have a basic understanding of the anatomy of the wrist. The wrist is a complex joint that consists of eight small bones called carpal bones, which are arranged in two rows. These carpal bones articulate with the two forearm bones, the radius and ulna, to form the wrist joint. Ligaments, tendons, and muscles surround and support the joint, allowing for a wide range of motion and stability.

When the wrist joint becomes damaged due to injury, arthritis, or other conditions, it can lead to pain, stiffness, and limited mobility. Total wrist replacement surgery aims to restore function and alleviate pain by replacing the damaged joint surfaces with an artificial joint.

Indications for Total Wrist Replacement

Total wrist replacement is typically recommended for patients who have severe wrist arthritis or other wrist conditions that have not responded to conservative treatments such as medication, splinting, or physical therapy. The decision to undergo total wrist replacement is made after a thorough evaluation by an orthopedic surgeon, who will consider factors such as the patient’s age, overall health, and the extent of wrist damage.

Some common indications for total wrist replacement include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis: This chronic autoimmune disease can cause inflammation and damage to the wrist joint.
  • Osteoarthritis: This degenerative joint disease is characterized by the breakdown of cartilage in the wrist joint.
  • Post-traumatic arthritis: Arthritis that develops after a wrist injury, such as a fracture or ligament tear.
  • Failed previous wrist surgery: Total wrist replacement may be considered if previous surgical interventions have not provided adequate relief.

It is important to note that total wrist replacement may not be suitable for all patients. Factors such as poor bone quality, active infection, or inadequate soft tissue support may make the procedure less likely to succeed. A thorough evaluation by an experienced orthopedic surgeon is crucial in determining the appropriateness of total wrist replacement for each individual patient.

Surgical Techniques for Total Wrist Replacement

Total wrist replacement surgery involves several key steps, which may vary depending on the specific technique used by the surgeon. The following are the general steps involved in the procedure:

1. Anesthesia

Prior to the surgery, the patient will be given anesthesia to ensure they are comfortable and pain-free during the procedure. The type of anesthesia used may vary, but it is typically either general anesthesia, which puts the patient to sleep, or regional anesthesia, which numbs the arm and hand.

2. Incision

Once the anesthesia has taken effect, the surgeon will make an incision over the wrist joint. The length and location of the incision may vary depending on the surgeon’s preference and the specific technique being used. The incision is carefully planned to provide adequate access to the joint while minimizing damage to surrounding structures.

3. Joint Preparation

After the incision is made, the surgeon will carefully dissect through the layers of tissue to expose the wrist joint. The damaged joint surfaces, including the carpal bones and the ends of the radius and ulna, are then carefully removed using specialized instruments.

4. Implant Placement

Once the joint surfaces have been prepared, the surgeon will proceed to implant the artificial joint components. Total wrist replacement implants typically consist of three main components: a metal stem that is inserted into the radius bone, a metal cup that replaces the carpal bones, and a plastic spacer that sits between the metal components to allow for smooth movement.

The implants are carefully positioned and secured in place using screws or other fixation methods. The surgeon will ensure that the joint is stable and that the components are properly aligned to allow for optimal function and range of motion.

5. Closure

After the implants are in place, the surgeon will carefully close the incision using sutures or staples. The wound is then dressed, and a splint or cast may be applied to immobilize the wrist and promote healing.

Recovery and Rehabilitation

Following total wrist replacement surgery, patients will typically spend a few days in the hospital for monitoring and pain management. Once discharged, a comprehensive rehabilitation program is essential to optimize recovery and regain wrist function.

The rehabilitation process may involve:

  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist will guide patients through exercises and stretches to improve wrist strength, flexibility, and range of motion.
  • Activity modification: Patients may need to modify their activities and avoid certain movements or heavy lifting to protect the newly replaced joint.
  • Pain management: Medications may be prescribed to manage post-operative pain and inflammation.
  • Follow-up appointments: Regular follow-up appointments with the surgeon are important to monitor the progress of healing and address any concerns or complications.

It is important for patients to follow their surgeon’s instructions and actively participate in their rehabilitation program to achieve the best possible outcome.

Potential Complications and Risks

As with any surgical procedure, total wrist replacement carries certain risks and potential complications. While the majority of patients experience successful outcomes, it is important to be aware of the potential risks involved.

Some possible complications of total wrist replacement include:

  • Infection: There is a risk of developing an infection at the surgical site, which may require antibiotics or additional treatment.
  • Implant loosening or failure: In some cases, the artificial joint may become loose or fail over time, requiring revision surgery.
  • Nerve or blood vessel injury: During the surgery, there is a small risk of damaging nearby nerves or blood vessels, which may result in numbness, weakness, or other complications.
  • Stiffness or limited range of motion: While total wrist replacement aims to improve wrist function, some patients may experience residual stiffness or limited range of motion.

It is important for patients to discuss these potential risks with their surgeon and weigh them against the potential benefits of the procedure.


Total wrist replacement is a surgical procedure that can provide significant pain relief and improve function in patients with severe wrist arthritis or other wrist conditions. Understanding the surgical techniques involved, as well as the indications, recovery process, and potential risks, is crucial for patients considering this procedure.

By working closely with an experienced orthopedic surgeon and actively participating in the rehabilitation process, patients can maximize their chances of a successful outcome and regain the ability to perform daily activities with reduced pain and improved wrist function.

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