Rehabilitation after knee surgery typically lasts about 12 weeks. But many people can walk without an assistive device after 3 weeks and drive after 4–6 weeks.

After total knee replacement (TKR) surgery, recovery and rehabilitation can help you get back on your feet and return to an active lifestyle. Each surgeon may have different protocols, and each person’s recovery is unique. This article outlines a general recovery timeline.

The 12 weeks following surgery are important for recovery and rehab. Committing to a plan and encouraging yourself to do as much as possible daily will help you heal faster from surgery and improve your chances of long-term success.

Read on to learn what to expect during the 12 weeks after TKR surgery and how to set goals for your healing.

Rehabilitation begins right after you wake up from surgery.

Some people have a total knee replacement as an outpatient procedure. This means they leave the hospital soon after the surgery, on the same day.

Some people may have this procedure as an inpatient procedure and stay in the hospital for a portion of their recovery.

After either inpatient or outpatient surgery, a physical therapist (PT) typically helps you stand and walk using an assistive device. Assistive devices include:

  • walkers
  • crutches
  • canes

The PT can show you how to get in and out of bed and move around using an assistive device. They may ask you to sit at the side of the bed, walk a few steps, and transfer yourself to a bedside commode.

If needed, a nurse or occupational therapist will help you with tasks such as dressing and using the toilet.

Before leaving the hospital, the PT will likely instruct you on exercises you’ll do at home.

Most people should start physical therapy within the first 24 hours after surgery. Following your exercise plan helps you get back to your regular activities faster.

What can you do at this stage?

You’ll need to meet specific criteria before being discharged from the hospital. Your healthcare team will check that:

  • your blood pressure and other vital signs are within an acceptable range
  • your pain is manageable
  • you do not feel nauseous
  • you can get out of bed and stand up from a chair without assistance
  • you can walk a short distance with an assistive device
  • you can safely navigate a short flight of stairs

When you can leave the hospital depends on factors such as your health before surgery and your age.

As you recover from surgery, your activity level will increase gradually.

Some pain, swelling, and bruising are expected after TKR surgery. Try to use your knee as soon as possible, but follow your surgeon and PT’s instructions to avoid pushing yourself too far too soon. Your healthcare team can help you set realistic goals.

During the first 48 hours after surgery, focus on achieving full knee extension (straightening the knee). Increase knee flexion (bending) by following your surgeon’s recommendations.

Your daily routine will include the exercises your PT has provided to improve your mobility and range of motion.

Your exercise plan at this stage may focus on:

You can start higher-intensity strength training during the first week after surgery if your physical therapist and surgeon give you the go-ahead.

It’s important not to push yourself too hard before your body is ready. Signs of overly aggressive training include:

  • severe pain during exercises
  • excessive swelling
  • prolonged soreness after exercising

If you notice these signs, you may need to stop what you’re doing and talk with your healthcare team.

Follow a doctor’s instructions to help manage pain after surgery. This can include:

How to shower after knee surgery

Your healthcare team will let you know how long you must wait before showering.

If the surgeon used waterproof dressings, you may be able to shower the day after surgery or after several days. If they used dressings that are not waterproof, you will usually have to wait longer before showering.

Avoid soaking your knee for 3–4 weeks to let the incision heal fully, according to the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons (AAHKS).

What can you do at this stage?

Starting the day of surgery, you should be able to fully extend the knee.

Your knee may be strong enough that you’re no longer carrying weight on your walker or mobility aid.

Keep doing exercises to improve your mobility and range of motion.

Most people progress to using a cane or nothing at all by 2–3 weeks.

If you’re using a cane, hold it in the hand opposite to your new knee and avoid leaning away from your new knee. This can help offset your weight and improve the mechanics of walking.

Throughout your recovery, alternate between sitting and walking throughout the day. Long periods of sitting can cause your knee to feel stiff.

What can you do at this stage?

You can probably walk and stand for more than 10 minutes, and showering and dressing should be easier.

Many people have moved on from using a walker and can get around with a cane or without assistance.

By week 3, most people no longer require prescription medication to manage postsurgical pain.

If you’ve stayed on your exercise and rehab schedule, you should notice a dramatic improvement in your knee, including bending and strength, after 1 month. The swelling and inflammation should also have gone down.

The goal at this stage is to increase your knee strength and range of motion using physical therapy.

Your PT may ask you to go on longer walks. In most cases, you will no longer require a cane or assistive device to get around.

What can you do at this stage?

Ideally, you’ll feel like you’re regaining your independence at this stage. Talk with your PT and surgeon about when to return to work and daily activities.

Exercises at this stage may include:

  • Toe and heel raises: While standing, rise up onto your toes and then your heels.
  • Hip abductions: While standing, raise your leg out to the side. You can also do hip abductions while lying on your side by raising your leg in the air. To perform a hip abduction, while lying on your side, raise your leg in the air. This can also be done by standing and raising the leg out to the side.

Toward the end of week 6, you can probably walk further. You can do more everyday tasks, like cooking and cleaning.

Some other milestones include:

  • You can usually return to work in 4–6 weeks if you have a desk job. If your job requires walking, traveling, or lifting, it may take up to 3 months.
  • Some people start driving within 4–6 weeks after surgery. It’s best to clear this with your surgeon first. It’s important not to drive if you take narcotic medications to manage your pain.
  • In most cases, you can travel after 6 weeks. Before this time, prolonged sitting during travel, such as flying, could increase your risk of a blood clot.

You’ll typically keep working on physical therapy for up to 12 weeks, and potentially longer.

Your goals will include rapidly improving your mobility and range of motion — possibly 120 degrees — and increasing strength in your knee and the surrounding muscles.

Your PT will modify your exercises as your knee improves. Exercises might include:

  • Bicycling on a stationary bike: If you have access to a stationary bike, cycling may help increase mobility.
  • Mini squats: While standing, bend your knees slightly. You can use a chair back for support if you need it.
  • Leg balances: Stand on one foot at a time for as long as possible.
  • Step ups: Step up and down on a single step, alternating which foot you start with each time.

It’s important to continue your exercises as you progress in your recovery. Committing to rehab will determine how quickly you can return to your typical lifestyle and how well your knee works in the future.

What can you do at this stage?

At this point, you should be well on the road to recovery. You should have significantly less stiffness and pain.

You can do more physical activities at a typical pace, including:

At week 12, you’ll still need to continue your exercises. You should be feeling in better shape while doing them.

You’ll need to continue to avoid high-impact activities that could damage the implants or the surrounding tissues. These may include:

  • running
  • aerobics
  • skiing
  • basketball
  • football
  • high intensity cycling

At this point, you should have much less pain. Keep talking with your healthcare team, and avoid starting any new activities before checking with them first.

What can you do at this stage?

At this stage, many people are up and about and beginning to enjoy activities like:

  • golf
  • dancing
  • bicycling

The more committed you are to rehab, the sooner this may happen.

At week 12, you’ll likely have less or no pain during your typical activities and recreational exercise and a full range of motion in your knee.

Your knee will keep improving gradually over time, and pain will reduce.

The AAHKS says it can take up to 3 months to return to most activities and 6 months to a year before your knee is as strong and resilient as possible.

How long does a knee replacement last?

There’s a 90–95% chance that a knee replacement will last 10 years and an 80–85% chance it will last 20 years.

Stay in touch with your medical team and have regular checkups to make sure that your knee is staying healthy. Follow your doctor’s recommendations regarding follow-up visits.

For most people, follow-up appointments continue for the first year after surgery. Your medical team will tell you when you no longer need to come for checkups.

Many people who undergo total knee replacement surgery report positive outcomes.

Following your rehab plan can help you recover from surgery faster. However, everyone’s recovery happens at its own pace. Your surgeon and physical therapist will let you know when it’s safe to return to household tasks, work, and other activities.

Day 1Some people are discharged from the hospital on the same day as their surgery.When you’re ready, your healthcare team will help you get up and moving. You’ll learn how to use assistive devices and navigate stairs.
First weekYour physical therapy exercises at home will focus on restoring gait, range of motion, and strength.Follow your PT’s instructions and do your exercises every day. If you notice excessive pain or swelling, check with your healthcare team.
By week 3Walk and stand for more than 10 minutes. You may be using a cane or no assistive device at all.Continue doing exercises to improve your mobility and range of motion.
Weeks 4–6Start returning to daily activities like work, driving, travel, and household tasks.Your PT may recommend longer walks. Keep doing your exercises to improve your mobility and range of motion.
Weeks 7–11Start returning to low impact physical activities like swimming and cycling.Continue rehab for strength, range of motion, and endurance training. Many people see rapid improvements during this period.
Week 12+Start returning to higher-impact activities if your surgeon agrees.Follow the guidance of your PT and surgeon about any ongoing treatments.

Pain management over the first 12 weeks may include:

  • keeping your leg elevated
  • applying ice or using an ice machine
  • compression
  • taking acetaminophen or NSAIDs as directed
  • taking prescription pain relievers, such as opioids, as prescribed

The following includes common questions about the total knee replacement surgery rehabilitation timeline.

How long is bed rest after knee replacement?

While you may experience pain and swelling following surgery, there is no bed rest period. Instead, you may begin moving around with an assistive device, such as a walker, and performing physical therapy exercises to improve your mobility and range of motion.

What activities should you avoid after a knee replacement?

After total knee replacement surgery, you may need to avoid getting your bandages wet or submerging the healing area in water.

Later in your recovery, doctors typically recommend avoiding activities with twisting motions and those where you can risk knee injuries, such as football, skiing, and snowboarding.

How painful is rehab after knee replacement?

Rehabilitation after a knee replacement helps to restore mobility, range of motion, and strength as you recover, though you may experience some pain and discomfort from swelling. You typically receive prescription medication to help manage your pain.

If your exercises cause you severe pain at any point, stop doing them and talk with a doctor or physical therapist.

What is the fastest way to recover from a knee replacement?

Performing your physical therapy exercises and following your doctor’s instructions may help speed your recovery from a total knee replacement.

You will likely be well on your way to recovery 12 weeks after total knee replacement surgery. However, you may be able to start returning to typical household tasks after about 4–6 weeks.

Committing to your rehabilitation exercises and performing the activities assigned by a PT can help your knee become stronger and regain full motion.