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Air-Travel Accommodations for Your Knee- or Hip-Joint Replacement

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There was a time when I traveled by commercial airline frequently -- so much so that the IRS contested my business-travel deduction one year! But all that air travel was before the widespread institution of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoints, and before I had a hip-joint replacement.

I experienced my first air travel following total hip-joint replacement about a year ago. Here's what I learned about special accommodations you should make, as well as what to look for at the airport for a little extra help.

Before You Go

First, be sure your orthopedic surgeon approves your travel. Some may suggest waiting six weeks after surgery before flying. However, the National Health Service in the UK strongly recommends a gap of three months before going up in the air.

It's wise but not necessary to have some documentation of your joint replacement. You have a couple of options:

  • TSA notification. The TSA website offers a card that you can fill out, simply adding a description of your joint replacement. People with disabilities or implantable medical devices, such as pacemakers or cardioverter defibrillators, can also use such a card.
  • Letter from your surgeon. Many orthopedic specialists' offices already have special letters or forms they can provide that document your replacement surgery.

If you use a cane, it must be stored in the overhead compartment, and if it's pointed, watch out: It may be confiscated. Traditional canes, though, shouldn't be a problem.

At the Airport

Be prepared to tell the first security officer you see that you have a metal joint replacement, and present them with your TSA notification or letter. Don't expect them to get excited about it. The procedures are pretty standard: You won't go through the metal detector. As a study from the Annals of The Royal College of Surgeons of England (RCS) investigates, a joint implant will set off the detector more than half the time, requiring a time-consuming pat-down. The posted security officer will send you though the scanner. Simply follow the TSA agent's direction, and you should have no problem.

A few people reported in the RCS study (which was completed in 2007) that they had to show both their letter and their scar. By now, it's more likely that TSA has had enough experience with joint implants that you can avoid the inconvenience of showing your scar.

One potential option is joining the TSA Pre program, which allows you to go through an expedited screening line if you meet the requirements. As of now, there's also an $85 fee for five years of expedited screening. (It used to be free if you met certain criteria.) You don't have to remove your belt or shoes, which is occasionally a problem for someone who's had knee or hip surgery.

On the Plane

To avoid stiffness, it's best for a person with a hip- or knee-joint replacement to sit on the aisle because there's more room to change position (which you should do from time to time). You may even want to request (and pay for) an exit row, or if you can afford it, upgrade to business or first class with more legroom.

Also, if possible, get out of your seat and walk around now and then to avoid deep vein thrombosis (DVT), blood clots that form in blood vessels inside the leg. You may also want to wear compression stockings to help prevent DVT.

Don't let your knee- or hip-joint replacement keep you from traveling! In fact, it should make you feel better and have a higher overall quality of life. Simply plan ahead and take advantage of any accommodations that might help you, and your vacation or business travel will be all the more rewarding and pain-free. Besides, those grandkids, nieces, and nephews are waiting to see you!

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