Knee Arthroscopy: Recovery

Recovery from knee arthroscopy can vary based on what type of procedure was performed and whether structures were repaired or removed from the knee joint. Activity restrictions will be put in place during the initial stages of recovery until the knee heals and becomes stabilized to support activity demands.

Physical therapy may play an important role in your recovery to get you back to performing everyday activities safely and without pain.

Physical therapist holding and checking patient's leg
 aldomurillo / Getty Images

Surgery Follow-Up

An appointment with your surgeon should be scheduled within one week after your knee arthroscopy was performed. After the initial follow-up visit, your doctor will make regularly scheduled appointments to track your progress during your rehabilitation.

Appointments are often more frequent in the beginning weeks with more time between future visits later on in the recovery process. Your last visit with your surgeon will typically be around one year after the surgery.

Pain Management

You will likely be given an initial prescription for narcotic pain medication to help with symptom management after the surgery. Narcotic medications can be addictive and cause undesirable side effects, especially gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea, vomiting, constipation, and abdominal pain.

It is best to follow your doctor’s instructions about weaning yourself off of the medication and doing so as early as possible if your pain is well controlled.

Always make sure to ask your doctor if it is safe to take over-the-counter pain medications if necessary based on your medical history and type of procedure performed. Certain medications can increase the risk of bleeding or inhibit tissue healing which can be problematic for recovering from knee arthroscopy.

Physical Therapy

Depending on the extent of your surgery and remaining limitations after the operation, your doctor may give you a prescription for outpatient physical therapy. You can receive physical therapy services either at an outpatient private practice or the outpatient rehabilitation department of a hospital.

A physical therapist will evaluate you and develop a plan of care that will help to address your pain and make improvements in the range of motion of your knee, strength of your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glute muscles, and ability to walk, maintain your balance, go up and down stairs, bend and squat, and return to sports and other forms of exercise.

Physical therapy generally begins at a frequency of three times a week for four to six weeks. Your physical therapist will communicate and coordinate care with your doctor and determine if you need more visits after the initial frequency is close to completion.

Arthroscopic procedures that involve the removal of damaged structures such as cartilage typically require less rehabilitation to return to normal activities. More involved surgeries that involve repair of damaged structures, such as a repair of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), or meniscus, can require six months to a year of physical therapy.

Recovery Timeline

As a general timeline, you can expect to return to the full extent of your usual activities within six to eight weeks after the surgery, but procedures like repairs of a meniscus, ACL, or PCL often require several months for complete rehabilitation.

A meniscus repair can take between three and six months to recover and return to unrestricted activity while it can take between six and 12 months to fully recover from an ACL or PCL reconstruction.

Your return to work will be dependent upon your specific job duties. For sedentary jobs that involve sitting for most of the day, you may be able to return to work as soon as one to two weeks after the surgery.

For more active jobs that entail physical demands, including prolonged standing, you will be able to return to work after several weeks of rehabilitation. Your surgeon will give you clearance to return to work after your knee has healed enough to tolerate your work duties.

Weight-Bearing Restrictions

You may have weight-bearing restrictions following your knee arthroscopy that limit the amount of pressure you can put through your leg while standing and walking. Your surgeon will inform you when it is safe to bear weight through your leg.

You may be given crutches to help you walk after the operation to avoid putting too much pressure on the knee before it is fully healed.

Many arthroscopic knee procedures allow "weight bearing as tolerated" on the leg that was operated on. This means that you can stand and walk on your leg while bearing as much of your body weight as you can comfortably handle.

If you are unable to walk without exhibiting increased pain, a significant limp, or poor balance, you will be able to use crutches to assist with offloading your knee joint until you progress with your rehabilitation and make improvements in your leg strength and pain levels.

Your physical therapist will continually monitor your progress and let you know when using crutches will no longer be necessary. Weight bearing as tolerated is typically allowed after procedures that involve repair or removal of cartilage, removal of a portion of the synovial membrane, a meniscectomy, or lateral release of the patellar retinaculum.

For other more involved arthroscopic procedures like ACL or PCL reconstruction, meniscus repair, and microfracture surgery, you will have to follow non-weight-bearing restrictions in the beginning weeks of your recovery. This means that you will not be able to stand or put any weight through your leg until cleared by your surgeon.

Crutches are most commonly used to help you walk while maintaining non-weight-bearing status on your operated knee, but a rolling walker or wheelchair is sometimes necessary initially for patients who cannot use crutches due to poor balance and strength.

If you were given a knee brace to wear after your surgery, you should wear it all times except for showering and performing the non-weight-bearing exercises, completed while sitting or lying down, provided by your physical therapist.

All standing exercises should be performed with the brace on. Your surgeon will instruct you as to when it is safe to remove the brace and walk and exercise without it.

Coping with Recovery

Recovery from knee arthroscopy can vary depending on the procedure performed. It is important to follow all instructions from your surgeon and physical therapist to promote optimal healing and recovery for the best possible outcome. Recommendations for optimal recovery include:

  • Prioritizing getting enough sleep at night, at least seven to eight hours, to promote healing
  • Eating a healthy diet and managing a healthy weight
  • Staying adequately hydrated
  • Maintaining a positive attitude and learning how to cope with and manage stress
  • Following your exercise program as prescribed by your physical therapist
  • Staying active and limiting the amount of time you spend sitting each day
  • Maintaining your weight-bearing precautions, if applicable
  • Avoiding high impact activities like running, weightlifting, and sports until your knee has acquired enough strength and stability to withstand the demands

Wound Care

You may experience pain and discomfort in your knee after the operation. Your doctor will prescribe you pain medication to help manage symptoms after the surgery.

Each incision site will be covered with a small bandage after the surgery is completed. You may shower within a few days after the surgery, but your incision sites should remain covered and dry for four to five days after the operation.

You can use a plastic bag or plastic wrap to cover your knee in order to shower without the incisions and bandages getting wet.

Your surgeon will give you specific instructions about how long to keep the bandages covering the surgical sites. Once you remove the bandages, wash gently around the incisions and pat dry.

Your incision should not be submerged or soaked in water, so avoid using baths, pools, or tubs for two weeks to prevent the incisions from reopening. Also avoid applying lotions, creams, or ointments directly to the area unless specifically instructed to do so by your doctor.

If stitches or staples are left in place, do not remove them yourself or ask someone to help you remove them. Your doctor will remove any stitches or staples at your follow-up appointment once the incision sites have adequately healed.

Swelling

Applying ice to your knee can help provide pain relief and decrease swelling and inflammation. You can apply ice between 10-20 minutes to your knee every one to two hours if needed.

Do not apply ice directly to the skin as it can cause temperature-related damage to the skin and blood vessels. Ice or cold packs can be applied to the knee on top of wearing pants or by using a towel or pillowcase as a barrier.

Elevating your leg will also help decrease swelling from pooling around the knee and into the lower leg and ankle. You should elevate your leg above the level of your heart as much as possible in the first week following your operation. Decreased swelling will result in less pain, increased range of motion, and quicker recovery time.

When to Call the Doctor

If you develop a fever or if the surgical sites become red, hot, or swollen, contact your doctor immediately as these are signs that you may have an infection.

Also contact your doctor immediately if you experience increased throbbing or cramping pain, tenderness, warmth, or redness in your calf. These are characteristic signs of a deep venous thrombosis which requires immediate medical attention.

A Word From Verywell

It is important to follow your doctor’s recommendations after your knee arthroscopy in order to promote optimal healing and recovery. The length of your recovery can vary depending on the type of procedure performed.

Remember that you should play an active part in your recovery, which requires maintaining healthy lifestyle habits, staying active and limiting the amount of time you spend sitting each day, and following your prescription for physical therapy visits and home exercise program, if applicable. 

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Article Sources
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  1. Mansfield Orthopaedics. Knee arthroscopy.

  2. Mammoth Hospital: Orthopedic Surgery and Sports Medicine. Arthroscopic Knee Surgery Instructions. Updated 2011.