Knee Replacement: Recovery

Full recovery from a total knee replacement may take anywhere from six months to up to a year. To maximize your chances for a successful surgical outcome, it's important to follow all of your surgeon's post-operative instructions. These will include when to follow-up, what activities to restrict, and how to care for your wound.

Woman walking with a walker
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Surgery Follow-Up

After knee replacement surgery, you can expect to follow-up with your surgeon at the following points:

  • Two weeks after surgery
  • Six weeks after surgery
  • Three months after surgery
  • One year after surgery

During these appointments, your surgeon will evaluate how well you are healing and remove any non-absorbable stitches or sutures that were placed during the operation. An X-ray of your knee will also be taken during these visits.

Besides your surgery appointments, you will also have sessions with a physical therapist for up to three months. The purpose of these physical therapy appointments is to strengthen your knee muscles so you can return to walking and other activities of daily living.

Recovery Timeline

If you have your surgery in the hospital, you can expect to stay there for approximately one to three days.

Your recovery will start at that time. Expect to:

  • Start eating gelatin and broth, as tolerated, and then slowly advance to a solid diet
  • Ice your knee at regular intervals (e.g., every 20 minutes)
  • Use a breathing device called an incentive spirometer to keep your lungs healthy after surgery
  • Wear compression boots and take a blood thinner to prevent blood clots in your legs

You will also meet with physical and occupational therapists in the hospital. The physical therapist will work with you on mobility, strengthening, and walking. The occupational therapist will work with you on preparing for tasks such as washing, dressing, and other daily activities.

Most patients are able to go home after this brief hospital stay. If you are having trouble performing regular activities, such as getting to the bathroom, however, you may go to a short-term rehabilitation facility before going home.

If you instead have your knee replacement in an outpatient surgical center (which is not typical, but is becoming more common), you will be released the same day as your procedure.

In either case, your surgeon will provide you with specific instructions to follow when you're back home, such as:

  • Taking your medications as directed, which usually includes pain medication, stool softeners, a blood thinner, and sometimes, an anti-nausea drug
  • Resuming your normal diet, drinking lots of water, and avoiding alcohol
  • Performing knee exercises as advised: A physical therapist will probably come to your home for a few visits before you begin outpatient physical therapy.

Activity Restrictions

Certain activities will be restricted after surgery. The timeframe for these limitations depends on how well you are healing and progressing with physical therapy.

  • Walking: Your surgeon will probably have you getting out of bed and walking with a walker on the day after surgery. You can expect to walk unassisted (without a walker or cane) within two to three weeks after surgery.
  • Driving: Patients can usually return to driving about four to six weeks after surgery (and sometimes sooner), assuming they are off all opioid pain medication.
  • Working: Patients who work mostly at a desk can return in about four to six weeks. People with labor-intensive jobs or those that require a lot of standing or walking require a longer wait (up to three months).
  • Travel: Due to the increased risk for blood clots from both surgery and prolonged sitting in a car or airplane, patients are generally advised to wait four to six weeks after their operation before traveling.
  • Physical activities: Patients can return to sports three to six months after surgery. Low-impact sports, such as swimming, walking, golfing, or biking, are considered fine and can be safely restarted. Your surgeon, however, will advise you to avoid high-impact sports that involve running or jumping for the rest of your life.

Coping With Recovery

Part of preparing for knee replacement surgery involves taking steps to make the recovery process easier. Such strategies cannot only reduce the physical stress you will be under, but the emotional stress as well.

If you've arranged for someone to stay with you and assist you with personal care and household chores (recommended for at least a week), take full advantage of their help—even if you feel up to doing something yourself.

Aside from having them help with routine tasks like cooking and shopping, ask them to make sure that your living space is a safe one for you both now and after they leave.

While ideally done before you have surgery, if not already checked off your list:

  • Have them ensure that fall hazards within your home—such as throw rugs or electrical cords lying on the floor—are removed.
  • Request that they install handrails on your stairways and in your bathroom, if not already there. The same goes for a shower chair and a raised toilet seat.
  • Ask that they purchase a grabber device that you can use to reach items on your own.

Wound Care

After surgery, it's important to keep your wound site dry in order to prevent an infection. If your surgeon uses a waterproof dressing over your surgical site, you may be able to shower the day after surgery. If a waterproof dressing is not used, your surgeon may allow you to shower about five to seven days after surgery.

When showering without a waterproof dressing, some surgeons may recommend keeping the wound site covered with a plastic wrap in order to keep it dry. Others may simply recommend that you pat the wound site dry after gently washing it. It's best to follow your surgeon's precise guidelines.

Since a fall after your surgery can damage your new knee and be a big setback (even possibly requiring another surgery), fall prevention while showering is key. Consider utilizing a walk-in shower, if possible, and/or a shower that has a bench or chair in it. To be on the safe side, it's also sensible to have someone at home while you are showering.

Do not take or a bath or soak your knee in water (e.g., swimming pools or hot tubs) until your surgeon gives you the OK, which is typically up to six weeks after surgery.

Be sure to call your surgeon if you develop any signs of an infection, such as: 

  • Fever or chills
  • New or worsening redness, swelling, warmth, or tenderness around the wound
  • Drainage from the wound site
  • Increased knee pain

A Word From Verywell

The vast majority of patients who undergo a knee replacement are satisfied with the surgery, reporting pain relief and improvement in functioning. That said, if at any time you are concerned or have questions about your recovery process, do not hesitate to reach out to your surgical team. They are there to help ensure your surgery has a successful outcome and that you feel as comfortable as possible during your healing period.

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Article Sources
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