Skin Numbness After Knee Replacement Surgery

While knee replacement surgery has a very high success rate, it can also cause side effects, including numbness of the skin around the incision site.

Sensory nerves detect sensations like pressure, light touch, and vibrations. These small nerves are branches of larger nerves connecting the brain to all parts of the body. Damage at any level of this connected pathway can lead to areas of abnormal sensation in the body—including numbness.

During knee replacement surgery, it's common for nerves that run through the surgical site to become damaged. This can result in numbness around the knee incision. While this minor complication doesn't typically cause a person any problems, it can last for a long time or even be permanent.

An incision scar on the knee
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Knee Replacement Incisions

Knee replacement incisions can vary slightly based on surgeon preference, surgical approach, and the implants used. A traditional knee replacement incision is placed directly over the front of the knee. This incision, called a midline incision, is the most common surgical approach for performing total knee replacement.

Other surgical incision options include a medial parapatellar incision and a subvastus oblique incision, both of which are oriented more towards the inner (medial) side of the knee joint. In these situations, a surgeon will shift the incision slightly so that the scar is not directly over the front of the kneecap.

The length of the surgical incision can vary dramatically. In one study, investigators found the average length of a knee replacement incision to be just over 11 cm, but this varied from about 7 cm up to a length of about 19 cm.

Your body has small, delicate skin sensation nerves that lie directly underneath the skin and cross the area of a knee replacement incision. There is essentially no way to completely avoid the skin nerves when performing knee replacement surgery.

When your surgeon makes the initial incision and dissects down to the knee joint, those skin nerves are invariably severed. Even if it were possible to protect the skin nerves at the time of the initial incision, preserving them while trying to perform the necessary steps to prepare and implant an artificial knee would be challenging.

How Common Is Numbness?

As stated, sensory skin nerves are invariably cut at the time of knee replacement surgery. About 50% of people notice symptoms of numbness around the area of the skin incision one year after their surgical procedure. That said, less than 10% of these people are bothered by this symptom.

The three factors which are most notably associated with being bothered by numbness are:

  • Length of the incision: The strongest association with numbness was the length of the surgical incision. Longer surgical incisions are more likely to cut nerves underneath the skin.
  • Gender: Females seemed to be more commonly affected by abnormal sensations around their incisions. More than three-quarters of the patients to report discomfort as a result of the surgery were females.
  • Age of the patient: People older than 70 years of age had fewer complaints about being bothered by abnormal sensations around their incisions.

In addition to these factors, the nerve that provides sensation to the front of the knee starts on the inner side of the joint and progress over the front of the joint extending towards the outer side of the knee joint. When the skin incision is based more towards the inner side of the knee joint, it is more likely to cut the larger portion of the nerve. Incisions based more towards the outer side of the joint tend to involve the smaller branches. When only the smaller branches are cut, the effect on the perception of sensation is reduced.

Regarding the difference noted in the perception of numbness between men and women, the reason is unclear. Studies have not shown any gender difference of orientation of the skin nerves. Some of this difference may be attributable to differences in clothing. Women specifically mentioned being bothered when wearing skirts or dresses that tended to rub against their incision.

What to Do

There is not a lot that can be done about numbness around an incision after a knee replacement. Uncomfortable sensations may diminish over time, and there may be some recovery of normal sensation in this area. Most people who noticed symptoms of numbness find that the area gradually shrinks down over time.

On a positive note, there has never been any evidence that this numbness leads to actual functional limitations on the knee replacement. Even if people are bothered by the abnormal sensation, the knee replacement should function just as well whether or not there is an area of skin numbness.

It is well-known that nerve recovery after damage and nerve regeneration are both very slow processes. While full recovery of nerve sensation may be unlikely, it may take one year or longer for abnormal sensations to recover to their full potential.

A Word From Verywell 

Damage to the nerves that provide sensation of the skin around the knee joint is common after knee replacement surgery. This nerve damage is seldom noticed by the patient, but some people do have bothersome symptoms as a result.

On a positive note, seldom does having abnormal sensation around a knee replacement incision lead to limitations in the function of the knee joint. In addition, abnormal sensations may continue to improve for up to a year from the time of surgery. Limiting the length of the surgical incision is probably the most helpful way to limit the potential damage to sensory nerves.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Total knee replacement.

  2. Sanna M, Sanna C, Caputo F, Piu G, Salvi M. Surgical approaches in total knee arthroplastyJoints. 2013;1(2):34–44.

  3. McPherson E, Czarkowski B, Dipane M, Sherif S. Incision length in small incision total knee arthroplasty: how long of an incision is neededReconstructive Review. 2015;5(1). doi:10.15438/rr.5.1.102

  4. Jariwala AC, Parthasarathy A, Kiran M, Johnston LR, Rowley DI. Numbness around the total knee arthroplasty surgical scar: prevalence and effect on functional outcome. J Arthroplasty. 2017;32(7):2256-2261. doi:10.1016/j.arth.2017.01.057

By Jonathan Cluett, MD
Jonathan Cluett, MD, is board-certified in orthopedic surgery. He served as assistant team physician to Chivas USA (Major League Soccer) and the United States men's and women's national soccer teams.