Experts say it could result in less pain after the procedure, and many patients go home the same day.By Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Because of knee pain, Chuck Yelich couldn’t kneel, couldn’t garden.

“Down hills was the worst,” he says. “It was a progressive increasing pain. I couldn’t take it anymore.”

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He tried injections, but they didn’t work. So he saw his doctor about finally getting knee replacements.

“He looked at me, actually, and said, ‘think it’s time?'” Chuck says. “And I said, ‘hell yeah. It’s time.'”

He had both knees replaced by the same surgeon. The left knee the traditional way, with tape measures and rulers. Three years later, the right knee with the help of a robot.

“I’m an avid science fiction fan,” says Chuck. “And as soon as I heard robot, I said, ‘this is incredible.'”

“People almost have this idea of Terminator, or this autonomous robot coming, and doing the procedure, while I’m drinking coffee in the corner,” Dr. Michael O’Malley says. He says it’s not like that at all. “I don’t think patients want a robot completely doing everything outside of our control.”

He controls the robot, which makes precise cuts based on pre-operative CT scans and a camera positioning system on the robot itself.

“It tells us exactly, ‘here is where you’re going to cut.’ I press the button to control it, watching the screen and the patient, ensuring it’s in the perfect place,” Dr. O’Malley explains. “When you hit the boundary, it feels like a brick wall. You cannot go through it.”

He says risks and complications are no different than with the usual approach and might even be reduced.

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“There are several studies that have shown less pain, that there’s less soft tissue damage, because the robot is protecting that,” he says.

About 60% of patients go home the same day, with physical therapy at home.

“I was up and walking 4 hours after the surgery, up and down a flight of stairs,” Chuck says. “I was back home in bed in 10 hours. That’s phenomenal.”

“They’re getting up and moving better, they’re regaining their motion earlier,” says Dr. O’Malley. “And what I really want patients to feel is that their knee feels more normal. It doesn’t feel artificial.”

While a robotic knee replacement is covered by insurance, it isn’t an option everywhere. Only two UPMC hospitals offer it: UPMC East and UPMC Passavant. It is an investment for a health system.

Dr. O’Malley believes eventually there will be greater availability. “My prediction is that in 10 years, the majority of knee replacements, if not all, will be placed robotically.”

Chuck had less pain and a quicker rehab. “Much shorter. It’s a more precise surgery.”

“When their arthritis pain is gone, and they’re able to do things they couldn’t do before surgery, and now they can do them without pain, they’re just very thankful,” Dr. O’Malley says.

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Now, Chuck wishes he could have had his first knee done with the robot, too.