The recovery timeline for a total knee replacement typically lasts 12 weeks. Performing rehabilitation exercises can help improve your recovery time.

When you have total knee replacement (TKR) surgery, recovery and rehabilitation is a crucial stage. In this stage, you’ll 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 very important for recovery and rehab. Committing to a plan and encouraging yourself to do as much as possible each day 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 surgery and how to set goals for your healing.

Rehabilitation begins right after you wake up from surgery.

Within 24 hours after surgery, a physical therapist (PT) will help you to stand up and walk using an assistive device. Assistive devices include walkers, crutches, and canes.

A nurse or occupational therapist will help you with tasks such as changing the bandage, dressing, bathing, and using the toilet.

The PT will show you how to get in and out of bed and how to 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.

Continuous passive motion machine

The PT will also help you use a continuous passive motion (CPM) machine. This device moves the joint slowly and gently after surgery. It helps prevent a buildup of scar tissue and joint stiffness.

You’ll probably use the CPM machine in the hospital and possibly at home, too. Some people leave the operating room with their leg already in the device.

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

What can you do at this stage?

Get plenty of rest. Your PT will help you get out of bed and walk a short distance. Work on bending and straightening your knee, and use a CPM machine if you need one.

On the second day, you might walk for brief periods using an assistive device. As you recover from surgery, your activity level will increase gradually.

How to shower after knee surgery

If the surgeon used waterproof dressings, you can shower the day after surgery. If they used dressings that aren’t waterproof, you’ll have to wait for 5–7 days before showering and avoid soaking for 3–4 weeks to let the incision heal fully, according to the American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons (AAHKS).

The PT may ask you to use a regular toilet rather than a bedpan and ask you to try to climb a few steps at a time. You may still need to use the CPM machine.

Work on achieving full knee extension (straightening the knee) at this stage. Increase knee flexion (bending) by at least 10 degrees if possible.

What can you do at this stage?

On day two, you can stand up, sit, and change locations. You can walk a little further and climb a few steps with help from your PT.

If you have waterproof dressings, you can shower the day after surgery. The PT may ask you to use a regular toilet in preparation for returning to your activities of daily living.

You will likely stay in the hospital for 1 to 3 days after surgery, but this may be a lot longer depending on how you are healing.

When you can leave the hospital depends heavily on the physical therapy you need, how quickly you are able to progress, your health before surgery, your age, and any medical issues.

People who have more co-existing conditions or are at a higher risk of complications may have this procedure as an inpatient procedure and stay in the hospital for a portion of their recovery. Others may have a total knee replacement as an outpatient procedure and leave the hospital soon after the procedure.

By now your knee should be getting stronger and you’ll be able to increase your exercise and other activities. You’ll be working toward bending your knee further with or without a CPM machine.

Your doctor will be shifting you from prescription-strength to lower-dose pain medication.

What can you do at this stage?

At discharge, you may be able to:

  • stand with little or no help
  • go on longer walks outside your hospital room and rely on assistive devices less
  • dress, bathe, and use the toilet on your own
  • climb up and down a flight of stairs while supporting yourself with your upper body

By the time you’re back home or in a rehab facility, you should be able to move around more freely while experiencing reduced pain. You’ll require fewer and less powerful pain medications.

Your daily routine will include exercise your PT has given you. These will improve your mobility and range of motion.

You may need to keep using a CPM machine during this time.

What can you do at this stage?

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

After surgery, it’s typical for the knee to technically be able to bend between 70 and 90 degrees, though it may be difficult due to pain and swelling. After 7–10 days, you should be able to fully extend your knee out straight.

Your knee may be strong enough that you’re not carrying weight on your walker anymore. Most people progress to using a cane or nothing at all by 2–3 weeks.

Hold the cane 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.

If you’ve stayed on your exercise and rehab schedule, you should notice a dramatic improvement in your knee, including bending and strength. 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 and wean yourself off of an assistive device.

What can you do at this stage?

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

Toward the end of this period, you can probably walk further and rely on assistive devices less. You can do more everyday tasks, like cooking and cleaning.

If you have a desk job, you can return to work in 4 to 6 weeks. If your job requires walking, travel, or lifting, it may be up to 3 months.

Some people start driving within 4 to 6 weeks after surgery. It’s best to clear this with your surgeon first.

You can travel after 6 weeks. Before this time, prolonged sitting during travel could increase your risk of a blood clot.

You’ll keep working on physical therapy for up to 12 weeks. Your goals will include rapidly improving your mobility and range of motion — possibly to 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.
  • Toe and heel raises: While standing, rise up on your toes and then your heels.
  • Mini squats: While standing, bend your knees slightly. You can use a chair back for support if you need it.
  • 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 standing and raising the leg out to the side.
  • 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.

This is a very important time 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 may be able to walk a couple of blocks without any type of assistive device. You can do more physical activities, including recreational walking, swimming, and bicycling.

At week 12, keep doing your exercises and avoid high impact activities that could damage your knee 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, and bicycling. If you are committed you are to rehab, the sooner this may happen.

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

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

The AAHKS says that 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 it can be.

At this phase of recovery, you can start to relax. There’s a 90 to 95 percent chance that your knee will last 10 years, and an 80 to 85 percent chance it will last 20 years.

How long does a knee replacement last?

Stay in touch with your medical team and have regular checkups to make sure that your knee is staying healthy. The AAHKS recommends seeing your surgeon every 3 to 5 years after TKR.

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

TimelineActivityTreatment
Day 1Get plenty of rest and walk a short distance with help. Try to bend and straighten your knee, using a CPM machine if needed.
Day 2Sit up and stand, change locations, walk a little farther, climb a few steps with help, and possibly shower.Try to increase your knee bend by at least 10 degrees, and work on straightening your knee.
DischargeStand up, sit, bathe, and dress with minimal help. Walk farther and use stairs with a walker or crutches.Achieve at least 70 to 90 degrees of knee bend, with or without a CPM machine.
Weeks 1–3Walk and stand for more than 10 minutes. Start using a cane instead of crutches.Keep doing exercises to improve your mobility and range of motion. Use ice and a CPM machine at home if needed.
Weeks 4–6Start returning to daily activities like work, driving, travel, and household tasks.Keep doing your exercises to improve your mobility and range of motion.
Weeks 7–12
Start returning to low impact physical activities like swimming and stationary cycling.
Continue rehab for strength and endurance training and work to achieve a range of motion of 0–115 degrees.
Week 12+Start returning to higher impact activities if your surgeon agrees.Follow the guidance of your PT and surgeon about any ongoing treatments.

It may take up to 12 weeks after total knee replacement surgery for you to fully recover. However, you may be able to start returning to typical household tasks after about 4 to 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.