What Does Recovery Look Like for a Total Knee Replacement?
If you or a family member are scheduled to have a total knee replacement surgery, you may be curious about the recovery process and how long it will take to rehabilitate. Knowing this information will help you plan for a successful recovery.
While it can typically take 12 weeks to recover, it is essential to remember that everyone’s recovery is unique to them. Some people may experience faster recovery than others, while some may need a few extra weeks to get back to normal.
As you or your family member start your recovery process, make a collaborative plan with your healthcare providers. Commit to following it every day. And lastly, remember to listen to your body and not push too hard or too fast.
Here is what a typical 12-week recovery process might look like.
Your road to recovery begins the moment you wake up after your knee replacement surgery.
During the first 24 hours, your recovery team will be there to assist as you start to use your new knee. You will have nurses, physical therapists (PT), and occupational therapists (OT) to help you complete various tasks.
As you probably suspect, you will experience bruising, pain, and swelling after surgery. Listen and work closely with your healthcare team to aid in your recovery. They will help you set realistic goals and avoid pushing yourself too hard.
Ambulation (moving or walking about) is encouraged on the same day of your surgery. Movement in the new joint promotes healthy recovery while maintaining normal ranges of motion.
As soon as possible, your PT will help you stand with the aid of an assistive device or mobility aid. Examples of assistive devices include crutches, canes, and walkers. It is common to use a mobility aid for several weeks after surgery.
Your PT will teach you how to get into and out of bed. They will also show you how to move around using the mobility aid. At first, you will start by taking a few steps. Then, you will walk a short distance. The PT will continue to increase the distance as your strength and endurance build during your hospital stay.
Continuous Passive Motion (CPM) Machine
The PT will also help you use a continuous passive motion (CPM) machine. To use this motorized device, your leg is first placed inside. The CPM machine gently moves your knee joint based on the range of motion and speed set by your PT. Simply sit back and let the machine maneuver your leg back and forth.
The benefit of the CPM machine is that it helps to reduce joint stiffness while improving your range of motion with minimal effort. It may be possible to use this device at home once you are discharged.
When you are not working with your healthcare team or using the CPM machine, be sure to get plenty of rest. Rest can be equally important in the healing process as moving the joint.
In addition to working with your PT, your nurse will help you with daily tasks. This can include getting dressed, showering, using the toilet, and changing the bandage.
As your recovery progresses, your OT will also work with you on these daily tasks. They will show you how to complete them on your own or how to use other assistive devices, which may include: reachers, shoe horns, grab bars, raised toilet seats, and more.
Days Two and Three
Your stay in the hospital will typically be two to three days. This is dependent on how your knee is healing. If needed, you may need to stay longer.
During the days before your discharge, your activity level will increase. As you continue to work with your PT, you will walk farther distances. You may be asked to climb a few steps. This will be done gradually by your healthcare team to ensure proper healing.
Your PT will also give you straightening and bending exercises for your knee. You may continue to use the CPM machine. Together, the exercises and machine will improve your range of motion.
Your OT will also continue to work with you on daily tasks. Gaining independence is a major step towards being discharged.
To be discharged from the hospital, your doctor will make sure that you are ready. A number of factors are to be considered:
- Is physical therapy still needed
- Progression with walking, standing, and daily tasks
- Health before the surgery
- Other medical conditions
- Support at home
Your physician needs to assess how you will manage at home. They do not want you to injure your knee or end up back in the hospital. Some of the key things that you should be able to do before discharge may include:
- Standing with little to no assistance
- Taking longer walks and relying less on a mobility aid
- Going up and down stairs
- Completing daily tasks (e.g., dressing, bathing, and using the toilet) on your own
When your physician feels you are ready, you will be released from the hospital. It will be important to keep all follow-up appointments and stick to your discharge plan.
If you are unable to go home, you may be moved to a rehabilitation facility to continue your recovery.
Weeks One to Three
During the first few weeks after being discharged, you will continue the treatment that you started in the hospital.
You will do the exercises given to you by your PT. You may also have a CPM machine at home. These will help you improve your range of motion and mobility. After the first week, you should be able to fully extend your leg to a straight position.
You will find that the pain and swelling will decrease. You will be less reliant on medication to help ease the pain.
You will also be able to complete daily tasks with more ease. You will be able to stand longer and walk farther. You may no longer need a walking aid or will have transitioned to using a cane.
Weeks Four to Six
At this point in your recovery, you will have seen a major difference in swelling and inflammation. You will have seen a significant change in your ability to bend your knee and your strength when using it.
You will continue to work with your PT on building your knee’s strength and increasing your range of motion. You will start to wean off any mobility aide if you haven't already. Your PT will also ask you to increase your walking.
During this stage, you usually increase your tasks around the house as long as they are low-impact. You can cook and do easy household chores. Just remember to listen to your body if you need to sit down and rest.
Depending on how you have healed, you may be able to return to work. This will also depend on the type of job that you have.
You may also be cleared by your doctor to begin driving. This is just one more step in gaining your independence after surgery.
Weeks Seven to Twelve
As you continue towards the three-month mark after surgery, you may continue working with your PT to increase your level of activity.
Your PT exercises might include:
- Cycling with a stationary bike
- Hamstring curls
- Heel raises
- Hip abductions
- Leg balancing
- Straight leg raises
- Toe raises
The intention at this stage in your recovery is to rapidly increase your mobility and range of motion. You will also be focused on strengthening your knee and the surrounding muscles.
During this time, you still want to avoid high-impact activities as these can cause damage to your knee and hinder your progress. However, you may be able to participate in other low-impact activities, such as cycling, dancing, golf, and swimming. Make sure you check with your doctor before starting any new activity.
You’ll find that as your range of motion increases, your pain will decrease. During this stage of recovery, you will have little to no pain. If you find that you are experiencing pain, check in with yourself to make sure you are not overdoing it.
After Week Twelve
According to the American Associate of Hip and Knee Surgeons (AAHKS), it can take up to three months to return to most of your regular activities. And, it will most likely be six months to a year for your knee to reach its maximum strength and endurance.
As you continue down your road to recovery, keep your regular checkups with your doctor. They will be able to make sure your knee is healing properly and advise you on any increase in activity. We also recommend sticking with the exercises given to you by your PT.
Frequently Asked Questions
How soon can I shower after surgery?
If your surgeon uses waterproof bandages, you may be able to shower the day after surgery. If not, you will need to wait five to seven days before showering. You will not be able to take a bath (soak) for up to four weeks while the incision heals.
How long before I feel normal?
It can take about six weeks before you stop using any mobility aid to get around. It can take up to three months before you can return to many of your normal low-impact activities. It may be up to a full year to regain complete strength in your knee.
When can I do housework?
After four to six weeks, you can resume light household chores, such as dusting, dishes, folding laundry, etc. You will want to avoid any heavy tasks for up to three months.
When can I drive?
Your doctor should clear you to drive after four to six weeks. It will be dependent on your ability to get in and out of the car as well as being able to use the gas and brake pedals.
When can I go back to work?
If you have a desk job or a job that is physically less demanding, you may be able to return to work as early as four to six weeks after surgery. If your job is more physically demanding, it may take up to twelve weeks or longer.
How long will I need physical therapy?
Typically, you should expect to work with a PT for up to three months after surgery. This will be dependent on your general health, pre-surgery condition, and motivation.
How long will my new knee last?
AAHKS reports that a total joint replacement can last between 15 to 20 years. This is dependent on a number of factors.
Who can I contact with additional questions?
If you are experiencing knee pain and would like to speak with an orthopedic specialist, contact Altenburg Joint Replacement Surgery today. Our highly skilled team will work with you to find possible solutions. We have offices in Idaho Falls and Pocatello.
If surgery is needed, Dr. Altenburg is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon who specializes in knee and hip replacements.