Traveling with a THR (total hip replacement) in the age of the TSA

Although we can all expect travel to be more of a pain these days, THR patients should probably plan and allow for extra time when a security checkpoint must be passed.

Airport security has made traveling more stressful, annoying, and humiliating over the past decade.

At the same time as security measures have increased, so have the number of joint replacement procedures. Of course, we can reasonably expect joint replacement procedures to become even more prevalent in the coming decades, as the baby boomer population enters its golden years.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) says that in 2009, nearly 300,000 total hip replacements (THR) were performed in the United States. A new study, "Detection of Total Hip Prostheses at Airport Security Checkpoints: How Has Heightened Security Affected Patients?" is available in the April 4, 2012 issue of the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery (JBJS). The article provides an analysis of current security measures and their effects on patients who have had a THR.

To give you the quick lowdown, 250 patients at the Sinai Hospital of Baltimore were surveyed and assessed about their THR. About seven out of ten patients, of an average age of 56, had gone through airport security in the past year.

Of the folks who went through airport security, about eight out of ten of them set off the metal detector an average of four times. The patients with only one hip implant triggered alarms less frequently (80% of the time) than those patients with two hip implants (90% of the time).

Many patients had to go through the handheld metal detectors and submit to further inspection, especially during travel in the US, even though a large number of them carried medical cards from either the manufacturer or surgeon, identifying them as a recipient of a prosthetic joint.

Around 70% of the patients said they were inconvenienced during travel by their hip implants.

The authors of the study concluded that full body scanners, when available, might be a solution for some of these travelers. The authors also recommended counseling patients that they should expect delays and be prepared for such inconveniences, but know that these are often only momentary.

This study aims to relieve some anxiety and concerns that patients may have prior to traveling. To me, however, it just confirmed my worst suspicions about the hassle of traveling with a special medical concern like a THR.

Although we can all expect travel to be more of a pain these days (even items as innocuous as underwire bras can set off sensitive equipment), THR patients should probably plan and allow for extra time when a security checkpoint must be passed.

It's also a good idea to have a plan for how to manage stress and increase a sense of personal control over the situation (by making sure to have any necessary information cards, being prepared to answer questions calmly, etc.)

Knowing what to expect and having a plan for appropriately dealing with whatever arises is a proactive and responsible way to handle the extra burden of traveling with a THR in the era of the TSA.


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