Whether you’re considering knee replacement surgery, or you’ve already decided, you may have questions and concerns about recovering and getting back to everyday life.
Being informed about the process can help you know what to expect. This makes it easier to prepare and do everything possible for a smooth recovery.
What is Total Knee Replacement Surgery?
Total knee replacement is a common procedure. Surgeons carry out an estimated 600,000 total knee replacements annually in the US.
Also called a knee arthroplasty, a total knee replacement is a procedure in which surgeons shave away the arthritis on the ends of your bone and place metal caps to recreate a smooth surface. There is a plastic insert that is then placed between these metal caps to recreate your joint space to allow you to have a pain-free range of motion. This surgery is usually recommended for people who have arthritis or have had a severe knee injury.
A successful knee replacement surgery adds a new, undamaged surface to the knee joint and relieves knee pain for the person undergoing surgery. The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS) reports that 90% of people who have a knee replacement experience a drastic reduction in their pain levels. What’s more, over 90% of replacement knees are still functional after 15 years.
What to Expect from Recovery and How to Prepare
While a total knee replacement is a standard procedure, it’s also a major operation. While you’ll probably need some help in the first few days after your surgery, most people can return to their normal daily activities after about six weeks.
Here’s what you should know about the recovery process:
You’ll spend some time in the recovery room
Most total knee replacements take about 1.5-3 hours. Once the surgery is finished, the team will move you into a recovery room for observation as you awaken from anesthesia.
Nurses will monitor your pain levels and vital signs as you emerge from the surgery. You’ll likely experience some discomfort, but your surgical team will manage it effectively. They’ll check on you regularly and make sure you get the hydration you need to start the recovery process. You’ll probably be encouraged to eat a small meal or snack shortly after the surgery.
Some patients will go home a few hours after the surgery while others will spend a night or two in the hospital. Much of what determines your length of stay is based on your health, ability to demonstrate that you can safely care for yourself and your pain control. The faster you recover, the faster you will be back home.
How to prepare: Pack plenty of loose, comfortable clothing in your hospital bag. Call upon your family and friends to act as your support team in the hospital and help you get home once you’re discharged.
Your recovery will continue at home
Once you’re discharged from the hospital, you’ll be sent home to continue your recovery. Before you go, your doctor and nurses will give you instructions on wound care, managing your pain, how/when to take medications and how to safely resume light activity.
During the recovery period, you may work with a physical therapist to strengthen your leg and knee and restore movement to the area. Some people use crutches or a walker for a few weeks after their knee replacement surgeries whereas others may only use such walking aids for a few days. You will be able to progress with activity as you feel comfortable and can expect to do plenty of slow walks and focused physical therapy exercises.
How to prepare: Your mobility will be limited right after the surgery, and you may need some help around the house. Make sure you have a team of support people who can do things like assist with light house cleaning, help you complete your physical therapy, and assist with activities like dressing and bathing. How much help you require after surgery is best predicted by how much help you require before surgery.
You’ll also want to make sure your refrigerator is stocked with healthy, nutrient-dense foods, like fresh produce and lean protein, to help your recovery. Purchase a large reusable water bottle to help you stay hydrated.
Finally, be sure to prepare your home for recovery. You’ll want to clear high-traffic pathways, remove trip hazards, install railings along stairways, put a safety bar in the shower, and create a sleeping and sitting space on the first floor if your home has multiple levels.
You can resume your everyday life after about 2-6 weeks
As long as you gradually build your strength and mobility, you should be able to return to normal activities—like driving, light housework, and longer walks without walking aids—about 2-6 weeks after surgery. Be sure to work with your doctor and care team to care for your knee after surgery. In order to drive, you must be off of any narcotic medication and be able to safely get into and out of a vehicle in addition to driving the car. Your time to return to work will depend largely on what is required for you at work. The more active and physically demanding your job, the longer you can expect to be out of work.
How to prepare: Stick to your physical therapy routine and work closely with your doctor and care team to make sure you’re fully recovered before you resume your normal activities. Your complete recovery time can be longer or shorter depending on your health and overall fitness, so honor your body and take your time.
A Total Knee Replacement: The First Step to a Pain-Free Life
You don’t have to live with knee pain forever. A total knee replacement surgery can offer relief from pain and allow you to get back to the activities you love. While it’s normal to feel some apprehension before your surgery, understand that your surgical team is your guide. They are well versed in providing you excellent care that allows you to return to your life relatively quickly after surgery and can answer all of the questions you may have before the procedure.