Knee replacement surgery, also called total knee arthroplasty, can relieve pain and help you get mobile and active again after a knee injury or osteoarthritis.
After surgery, 9 out of 10 people experience significant improvements in the quality of their life, but it won’t happen at once.
It takes most people around 3 months to return to most activities, and it can take 6 months to a year to make a full recovery and regain full strength.
In other words, recovery takes time. It is crucial to have realistic expectations. In this article, find out more about what to expect at each stage.
During the procedure, a surgeon will cut away damaged cartilage and bone from your kneecap and the surrounding area, possibly including your thighbone and shinbone.
Then, they will insert an artificial joint made of metal alloys, high-grade plastics, or both.
Your new knee will mimic your old one in many ways, but it will take some time to get used to it.
After surgery, you will likely have to stay in the hospital for up to 4 days, depending on factors such as:
- your overall health
- how you manage the exercises
- whether or not you have help at home
A physical therapist will probably have you exercising and walking with an aid, such as a cane or walker, by the next day.
If you do not follow the prescribed exercise program both during and after hospitalization, you may not regain the mobility you were hoping for.
The doctor will usually consider that it is safe for you to go home when you:
- are able to get in and out of bed without help
- are using the bathroom without help
- can manage your pain
- are eating and drinking
- are walking with a cane, walker, crutches, or other device on a flat surface
- are able to go up and down two to three stairs.
- are able to do the required exercises without guidance
- know the steps for preventing injury
- know the steps to take to promote healing
- know how to spot the signs of a complication and when to call a doctor
If you are not able to go home, you may need to spend some time in rehabilitation.
When you go home, you may need assistance from a family member or healthcare worker for a while. You will also need to take medication for some time, to relieve pain.
You should be able to:
- walk with a cane or no device in 2–3 weeks
- drive after 4–6 weeks, depending on what the doctor recommends
- return to a sedentary job in 4–6 weeks
- return to a job that involves physical effort in 3 months
- travel after 4–6 weeks, when the risk of a blood clot has reduced
- shower after 5–7 days
- have a bath after 4–6 weeks, when it is safe to soak the wound
Most people find they can return to their daily activities within weeks. Many become more mobile and active than they were before the procedure. They may be able to return to past activities that they had given up due to knee pain.
However, you should not expect to do everything at once. During the first year, you will be regaining strength and flexibility in your knee.
As long as you adhere to an exercise program and stay active, you should continue to see improvements in strength and mobility.
It may not be appropriate to resume contact sports, even if you feel physically able to.
There is a risk of breaking your artificial knee or causing further damage.
Contact and high-impact sports will contribute to cumulative wear on your implant. Intense activity can impact the lifespan of the implant.
Most experts advise caution when resuming activities such as:
- court sports
It is essential to discuss the options with your orthopedic surgeon.
Most people undergo knee surgery to reduce pain. However, there will be some pain for a while after surgery, and around 1 in 5 people experience ongoing pain.
When exercising, pain and stiffness levels may depend on the activity.
You may experience:
- stiffness when starting exercise or after long walks or cycle rides
- a feeling of “hotness” around the knee
Warming up can help reduce stiffness and lower the risk of damage during exercise.
Applying an ice pack wrapped in a cloth and taking over-the-counter pain medication can help manage inflammation and pain.
Flexibility and strength
The new knee will not bend as far as your original knee. Activities such as the following may be more difficult:
- intense labor, such as gardening and lifting
However, staying active helps you maintain strength, flexibility, and endurance in the long term.
Exercise helps build bone mass and contributes to the development of a strong bond between the bone and the implant.
By strengthening the bones, exercise can also reduce the risk of further bone damage, such as osteoporosis.
If you have obesity or are overweight, your doctor might have encouraged you to lose weight before considering a knee replacement.
This is because additional body weight increases the risk of osteoarthritis by putting pressure on the knee. Obesity also increases the risk of inflammation.
In the same way, additional weight can also cause damage to the artificial knee. It can stress the joint and cause your implant to break or wear out sooner.
The success rate for knee replacement surgery is high, but it’s essential to have realistic expectations about your knee.
Most people experience a reduction in pain and stiffness after surgery, and they have increased mobility.
However, your artificial knee is unlikely to function at the same level as a healthy, natural knee.
In addition, in the long term, the implant alone will not keep you mobile. To get the best value from it, you will need to:
- exercise regularly
- maintain a healthy weight
- attend all follow-up appointments and follow the treatment plan as the doctor recommends
You will probably have to see your surgeon every 3–5 years for an evaluation.