How to Recover from Foot and Ankle Surgery

Selene Parekh, MD, MBA January 16th, 2023

Foot and ankle surgery can be a daunting process. Many have heard of nightmare scenarios through friends, family, and others. Whether you are having surgery for a bunion, Achilles tendon tear, a fracture, or ankle replacement, it is a big surgery. Before undergoing any type of surgery, it is important to understand all of the risks and benefits, which your health care provider can give to you.

Before having surgery, you should try to set up a support network that can help you with activities of daily living. From moving around in your own house, to cooking and cleaning, to getting groceries and meal prep, these individuals are critical to ease the stress in your recovery. Having Items in your house such as a shower chair, bedside commode, or cast cover are also helpful to have prior to your surgery. In addition, practicing on crutches or a knee scooter before your surgery will make it easier for you to be non-weight bearing, if that is required.

Regardless of the procedure you have, there are some commonalities amongst all these foot and ankle surgeries. In general, because humans are meant to walk on their feet, gravity consistently pulls fluid into your ankle, feet, and toes. In fact, for most of us, on a daily basis, our feet are a little bit larger in the evening than in the mornings when we first wake up! This is worsened after surgery. After surgery, you have normal swelling that occurs on a daily basis, but you also have the swelling from the actual surgery. Swelling can continue for up to one year, and is typically a month-by-month healing process.

There are things patients can do to improve the rate of that swelling. This includes keeping the foot elevated. That elevation moves the fluid towards the center of the body. You can also pump your ankle up and down which causes the muscles to contract and release. This contraction and release acts like a pump to move the fluid towards the center of the body. You can also wear compression socks which will help to squeeze the fluid towards the center of your body but also prevent some of that fluid from collecting. Ultimately, after twelve months, there may be some left-over swelling. This is common, and usually is not worrisome unless there are associated issues.

Pain is a real thing after any type of surgery. Due to the number of nerves that are present in the foot and ankle, this can be even more prevalent in foot and ankle surgery. There are some ways to help with this immediately after surgery. Techniques such as multimodal pain management in which you take multiple medications at lower doses to control pain from multiple avenues can be beneficial. Medications such as anti-inflammatories, nerve medications, and even numbing medications can all be used to help with pain immediately after surgery. Just like swelling, pain will continue to improve each month over the course of one year.

Finally, patients who have had foot and ankle surgery will find that their function continues to improve for up to one year. The weakness after surgery, mobility restrictions after surgery, swelling, and pain all affect function. As the weeks and months progress, so too does the improvement in mobility, strength, swelling, and pain. As all of these improve, patients get better function for up to a year.

In general, foot and ankle surgery is likely to try your patience, just know, that you will continue to improve. Give yourself time and find ways to occupy your day. This could mean having friends and family visit, stocking up on books to read, and catching up on Netflix shows. Do not be hard on yourself when you struggle to do things, and know that you will improve over the next twelve months.

Dr. Parekh is board-certified, fellowship trained orthopaedic surgeon specializing in the treatment and conditions of the foot and ankle. He will see patients in New Jersey (Princeton) and Pennsylvania (Bensalem and Newtown). For more information, click here.

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