By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/11/2003 9:06:00 AM ET 2003-12-11T14:06:00

In dozens of operating rooms where they’re installing new joints, the bionic body, once science fiction, is now routine.

New York's Hospital for Special Surgery replaces more than 4,000 joints every year.

“It’s not uncommon that we have patients who have multiple replacements. They’ll have both hips replaced both knees replaced and have a shoulder replaced,” says Dr. Thomas Sculco, the hospital’s surgeon-in-chief.

Patients like 73-year-old Robert Kelly are hoping for a longer, more active life.

“The operation was a must, and the hip had to be done because of the quality of life, to get rid of the pain,” says Kelly.

Recovery time following surgery is now greatly reduced. Surgeons operate through a tiny incision and the anesthesia is so light that most patients comes out of it very quickly.

And joint replacement procedures are not just surgeries for older people. New materials allow for balls and sockets that last for decades.

“Many individuals are very active when they’re young. There’s some injury that occurs in these joints and as time goes on, from those injuries, repetitive injuries, you can wear the joint out,” says Sculco.

Surgeons are also starting to replace discs in the back.

“We remove the disk and place these prosthesis, which allows us to maintain motion — basically a combination of metal and polyethylene plastic we implant in front of the spine,” says Dr. Frank Cammisa, chief of Spine Service at the Hospital for Special Surgery.

To be sure, it is major surgery with risks of infection and other complications. But less than 24-hours after surgery, Kelly has already started walking again — one of an ever increasing number of Americans who will not keep the joints he was born with.

Robert Bazell is NBC’s chief medical correspondent.

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