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Dr. Robert Klapper

Dr. Robert Klapper: Preventing Knee Surgery


October 17, 2013

Written for Knee1 by Michelle Alford

Robert Klapper, MD, is director of the Joint Replacement Program and an orthopedic surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Group and Cedars-Sinai Health Associates. He is a leader in minimally invasive surgical technique and holds nine patents on specially designed instruments used in orthopedic surgery. He was the orthopedic consultant to the TV show “ER,” and is the co-host of ESPN Radio’s Weekend Warrior. He’s co-authored two books on how to avoid surgery and what to do if surgery is needed: Heal Your Knees and Heal Your Hips.

Dr. Klapper tells people that he was genetically programmed to become an orthopedic surgeon. “My father was a carpenter and my mother was a nurse,” he says. “I always wanted to work with my hands, like my father, but my mom encouraged me to become a doctor.” During his first year of medical school, different specialists come in every week to talk to the students. The sixth week, an orthopedic surgeon spoke with them. “I’d never met an orthopedic surgeon before. He gave a talk that I still remember clear as day about a woman he treated without a socket. He had to use a saw, cut the bone, drill, and create hemispheres. I remember thinking, oh my god, nobody told me I could be a carpenter in the body. There’s nothing else I want to do but that.”

Dr. Klapper’s mixture of art and medicine makes him unique in his field. He majored in art history as an undergraduate at Columbia University and was particularly interested in sculpture. He still sculpts in his free time and gives lectures around the world about the connection between art and medicine. “I really do my best to marry my love of art and sculpture with medicine,” he says. “I think it goes a long way in demystifying the body.”

One of the most common questions patients ask Dr. Klapper is when they should be concerned about their knees. “Often people ask me about clicking or popping in their knees, and I tell them that noise alone is not something to worry about,” he says. “The three things that are reason to see a doctor are when there’s pain, swelling, or limited range of motion. You also don’t need to rush to a doctor immediately after a knee injury. First you can ice it, rest, and see if it improves on its own. If it’s staying the same or getting worse, then it’s time to see a doctor.”

Dr. Klapper emphasizes nurturing exercises over abusive exercises. “Nurturing exercises strengthen the knee while abusive exercises damage the joint,” he explains. He encourages his patients to focus on exercises like the swimming, biking, or using the elliptical as opposed to running, stair machines, or lunges. “Doing exercises in a pool is great for your knees. The weightlessness of the water unloads the joints, and the resistance of water makes muscles stronger.”

Being gentle on your knees doesn’t mean you have to give up the sports you love. “I tell people that they can have one vice. Playing sports is fun, but it can also damage your joints. So if you want to play a sport, you should spend the rest of the week exercising the quadriceps and calf muscles. If you strengthen the muscles above and below the knee, there’s less chance of injury.”

Our knowledge of the knee is increasing and will continue to increase in the next ten years. “It’s very exciting,” Dr. Klapper says. “I believe that we’re going to be getting a better understanding of the miracle of the knee joint. The coefficient of friction between our tibia and femur is less than two ice cubes rubbing together. That miracle of how the joint uses liquid to move so freely will become more and more understood.”

He believes this increased knowledge has significantly improved treatments over recent years.  “Treatments have changed dramatically,” he tells us. “More sophisticated MRI’s have led to better understanding of injuries. Surgeries are less invasive. We can do more in the joint to fix things. Our procedures can preserve more of the joint.”

Dr. Klapper cautions patients to see an orthopedic surgeon for their knee pain. New, easier treatments mean that it’s easier for doctors who aren’t experts in the knee to treat knee pain, but this can be problematic. “Some doctors don’t do enough to find the reasons why the knee is in pain or not behavior properly; they just treat the symptoms,” he explains. “You can inject all types of things or take all types of pills, but it’s not the symptoms I’m interested in taking away—it’s the cause of the symptoms.”

Dr. Klapper advises patients to be wary of anything that sounds too good to be true. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” he says. “Don’t give up your intelligence just because you’re in the office with a doctor. It needs to make sense.” Many knee problems don’t have a quick fix. “Father Time is going to get all of us, but the key is to try to enjoy our years on this planet as pain free as possible.”

For Dr. Klapper, medicine is a great equalizer. “From famous movie stars to world class athletes, we’re all the same,” he says. “No matter where you’re from, how you grew up, your economic background, you’re all still built the same. Medicine actually relates to all people, which is the greatest thing about being a doctor. That’s why every day is a blessing and it’s exciting to me.”

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Last updated: 17-Oct-13

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