Total Knee Replacement: What to Expect During Recovery

You need a total knee replacement, you’ve chosen a surgeon and have the procedure scheduled. What can you expect during recovery? Although the total knee replacement procedure is considered major surgery, it may surprise you how quickly you get back to moving again. Although every patient is different with unique medial needs, the following is a typical path of recovery.

Inpatient Recovery

During recovery on the same day as surgery the anesthesia used for the procedure is still taking effect. You most likely will not be uncomfortable. Your nurses will ensure that pain is managed with the appropriate medications as the anesthesia wears off. Your vital signs and blood work will be monitored to make sure that your body is recovering and you are safe to get up. On the first day of surgery you will be able to sit up on the side of the bed and with an assistance, move to a chair. A physical therapist will work on range of motion and strengthening exercises with you. Using an assistive device such as a walker, you might be able to walk short distances.

You will have the opportunity to participate in physical therapy with other total joint replacement patients in “Joint Camp.” Physical therapists will take you through range of motion exercises and strengthening in the gym setting. Many patients enjoy getting out of their room and interacting with other total joint replacement patients. Depending on how well you are feeling, the staff will walk with you or use a wheelchair to and from. A physical therapist will also be able to practice using stairs with you and simulate getting into a vehicle. Inpatient physical therapy is a typically twice a day to make sure you are regaining function.

Following a total knee replacement the hospital stay is commonly 2-3 days. You can expect to be able to dress yourself and use the restroom independently, walk and use stairs with an assistive device. Depending on your support at home, you will prepare to discharge home or to a rehabilitation setting.

Recovery at Home or Rehabilitation Hospital

If you have other complications or do not have a support system at home you can recover at a Rehabilitation Hospital until it is safe to discharge to home. You will continue progressing with a physical therapist in range of motion, strengthening, and ambulation.

When discharged to home you will be visited by a physical therapist to continue exercises in your home. Within a week you should be able to bend your knee to at least 90 degrees and extend it fully as well. Ice, compression, and pain medication can be used to manage pain and swelling.

You should expect to start having less pain and better function. After the first two to three weeks you will be less reliant on a walker or cane.

Outpatient Physical Therapy and Home Progression

To get the most function out of the total knee replacement, many patients continue with outpatient physical therapy. These settings have the equipment and skilled professionals to get you to more flexibility, strength and balance. The physical therapist can use modalities to reduce swelling and inflammation as well. Depending on how long it takes to reach their goals, patients continue physical therapy anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks.

Your surgeon will tell you when it is safe to drive, but typically patients feel safe enough to drive after 4 weeks. You should no longer be taking narcotics if you plan to drive a vehicle. During this time you should also be returning to your normal daily activities. You will gradually be able to progress low-impact activities such as cycling and swimming.

After 12 weeks the majority of patients have returned to much of normal life and are able to progress the intensity of activities. Most of your recovery is completed within the first three months, however it can take up to 6 months to gain your full strength. Your physical therapist and surgeon can discuss your functional goals with you regarding the need for ongoing treatments.

Contact the Heekin Clinic today for more information on what to expect recovering from a total knee replacement.


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