Dawn French’s painful knee surgery after 14-year injury was ‘unavoidable’

Dawn French has been open about her health woes since she underwent major knee surgery last November. 

The Vicar of Dibley star, 66, sustained an injury to her knee during a stunt in one of her Vicar-playing moments and later developed rheumatoid arthritis in the joint.

Dawn playing the Vicar of Dibley© Getty
Dawn sustained her injury whilst playing the Vicar of Dibley

Dawn opened up about her injury

Speaking directly to her Instagram followers at the end of last year, the French and Saunders star said: “Hello folks. It’s with a massively heavy heart and furious [expletive] that I have to admit defeat and postpone all of my remaining tour dates from tonight onwards,” she began.

“My stupid selfish ol’ arthritic knee has totally given up & won’t let me walk,” she continued. “I am swearing a lot. I am bereft to let you down. Sorry. On the upside, I can have the op I so desperately need, earlier than planned. Ouch. And sorry again. We are working hard to reschedule all the dates. Bear with…” 

Comediennes Dawn French (L) and Jennifer Saunders (R) backstage at the Hammersmith Apollo, London on Novermber 8 2000.© Getty
Dawn has spoken about her surgery

As Dawn steps onto the road to recovery with a series of physiotherapy exercises, Medical Director of the National Joint Registry (NJR) Tim Wilton lifts the lid on why many celebs like Dawn are having this knee surgery and why surgery is often unavoidable. 

Why are figures like Dawn getting knee replacements?

“In an aging population, our joints endure increasing wear and tear. The same is true of our celebrities; once it was 15 minutes of fame, now it may be 50 years. This can mean performing at an age where arthritis is unfortunately common, with older celebrities facing pressures to remain as fit and active as ever,” says Tim of the ever-increasing number of celebrities who are undergoing similar surgeries. 

Dawn French legs lying on bed with pet dog after knee operation
Dawn has been lying low, recovering from a nasty knee operation

“Dancers might need surgery early due to multiple small injuries from overuse or placing their joints in extreme positions — just look at the number of joint replacements among judges on Strictly!,” he continues. “Joint surgery gives a performer like Dawn a chance to continue entertaining fans on stage and screen for years to come.”

Can surgery ever be preventable?

Like many who have undergone surgery, Dawn tried to treat her knee pain for 14 years before putting herself through surgery. “Dawn’s busy career must have made it difficult to contemplate time with her feet up,” Tim reminds us. “In many cases, pain and loss of mobility arise gradually and are initially controlled with gentle activity, physiotherapy, and painkillers. When people reach a point where joint problems limit their ability to do what they love most, they often feel the benefits of surgery outweigh any downsides.”

Dawn has shared photos of her recovery process with her 900 thousand Instagram followers including her post-surgery bandaged knee and of her physiotherapy exercises. But what does a knee replacement mean? Tim weighs in. 

Feet and legs and an exercise ball© Instagram
Dawn French has shown her exercises online

What is joint surgery?

“Joint surgery involves everything from keyhole operations for common sports injuries, to full knee or hip replacements. The National Joint Registry (NJR) records information on around 200,000 replacement operations each year,” Tim reveals. “New hips have ceramic or steel balls and polyethene or ceramic sockets. Replacement knees are a more complicated shape and the polythene surfaces once wore out easily due to high stress, but modern designs have largely eliminated this problem.”

A leg with a purple scar© Instagram
Dawn showed off her surgery scar

Managing joint pain

Taking time out of work and a social life is an inconvenience for patients like Dawn who was due to embark upon the tour of her one-woman show at the end of last year. But unfortunately, Tim says that surgery is often inevitable. “Joint pain can be managed in a number of ways, Dawn talked about taking steroid injections to perform, but exercise and diet also play a role,” he tells us. 

“However osteoarthritis, the leading cause of joint pain, is a degenerative condition and won’t correct itself so sometimes surgery is unavoidable.” Tim advises discussing options with a surgeon if, like Dawn, you have found that your knee pain is significantly affecting your daily life and you’ve tried over-the-counter medications without success.

Dawn French with flower earrings and edgy grey hairdo© Instagram
Dawn hopes to get back on stage soon

The road to recovery

The good news is that Tim says most hip and knee replacements successfully relieve pain and improve mobility. He says that there is an initial rest phase before rehabilitation with light exercise like the static bike Dawn has been using.

Dawn French's pink writing room inside her Cornwall home© Instagram
Dawn is recovering at home in Cornwall

Many patients walk well between six and eight weeks after a partial knee replacement but he says a “Total knee replacements often take longer with some pain, stiffness or limping common for several months.”

Dawn French attends the Gala performance of "Sondheim's Old Friends" in aid of the Stephen Sondheim Foundation at Sondheim Theatre on May 3, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images)© Getty
Dawn is on the road to recovery

He concludes by saying that “most patients return to activities they enjoy, your surgeon will tell you what would be bad for your joint — if they don’t, make sure to ask, that’s what they’re there for. As for Dawn, I’m sure she’ll avoid stunts involving 10-foot drops!”. 

DISCOVER: Dawn French’s adoption story of her daughter Billie: ‘My biggest test and my biggest joy’ 

Celebs who have had knee replacements

  • Jane Fonda
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger
  • Steve Carell
  • Billy Joel
  • Lionel Richie
  • Steven Tyler 
  • Michael Douglas

Patients can find information on surgeons’ experience and track records on the NJR website.

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