Weight-Bearing Restrictions and Activity After Surgery

After lower extremity surgery, your orthopedic healthcare provider may limit the amount of weight you can place on your operated leg. This restriction is necessary to provide adequate time for proper bone or tissue healing to occur. It also allows for any hardware that was placed during the surgical procedure to remain in the proper position.

Photo of a nurse comforting patient with a broken foot
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This article describes the different weight-bearing restrictions your orthopedic surgeon may prescribe, including what is involved in the different stages of rehabilitation.

Types of Weight-Bearing Restrictions

Understanding the different weight-bearing restriction types, as well as how to perform them, is often confusing. So what are weight-bearing restrictions, and how do you navigate from non-weight-bearing to full weight-bearing after injury or surgery?

It is a good idea to check with your healthcare provider or physical therapist (PT) to understand your specific weight-bearing restrictions and how to maintain them properly. Studies have shown that compliance with these restrictions is low, and can have serious consequences.

It is important to closely adhere to your weight-bearing restrictions after surgery or injury because otherwise you can disrupt healing and delay your recovery. These restrictions are meant to protect your body as it is healing.

Non-Weight-Bearing

Non-weight-bearing means that no weight can be placed on the operated leg. This is the most restrictive of all weight-bearing limitations. Since you are not able to bear any weight on the leg, an assistive device, such as a walker or crutches, will be necessary for you to walk.

When walking with your walker or crutches, keep your affected knee bent and keep your toes off the floor. No weight means no weight; even the slightest bit of pressure on your leg can cause problems.

Toe-Touch Weight-Bearing

Toe-touch weight-bearing means that only the toes on your operated leg should contact the ground. This is for balance only, however, and no significant amount of weight should be placed on your toes.

As a result, an assistive device such as a walker or crutches will still be necessary for you to walk. Your toes are only used for slight balance and steadiness.

Partial Weight-Bearing

Partial weight-bearing allows you to place half of your weight on the operated extremity. Begin by using a scale to see how much pressure is on your affected leg when half of your weight is placed on it. Use your assistive device to stand with slight pressure on your leg.

Your physical therapist can help you with progressive partial weight-bearing. Sometimes your healthcare provider may give specifics when prescribing partial weight-bearing. They may prescribe 25% weight-bearing, 50% weight-bearing, or 75% weight-bearing.

Your PT can help you get a feel for how much weight should be placed on your leg. Make a mental note of this, and limit the pressure placed on your operated leg during walking to this restriction. As full weight-bearing is still not allowed, crutches, a cane, or walker can help you walk without losing your balance.

Full Weight-Bearing

Full weight-bearing allows you to place all of your weight on the operated extremity. There are no restrictions in regards to the amount of weight placed on the leg, therefore assistive devices are usually not necessary.

If you have been walking with a cane or crutches, you may not want to simply throw those things away, as you may need them to progress from partial to full weight-bearing. Sometimes progressing from partial to full weight-bearing can make your muscles a little sore, so expect this. Your PT can help you safely progress from partial to full weight-bearing.

It is important to closely adhere to your weight-bearing restrictions after surgery or injury because otherwise you can disrupt healing and delay your recovery. These restrictions are meant to protect your body as it is healing.

Recap

Weight-bearing restrictions help leg surgeries heal properly. They include non-weight bearing restrictions, toe-touch weight-bearing restrictions (in which only the toes are placed on the ground for balance), or partial weight-bearing restrictions. All involve some type of assistive device, like a walker, crutches, or a cane.

Risks of Non-Compliance

If you fail to appropriately maintain your weight-bearing status, you could risk causing further injury or jeopardizing the success of your surgery. Of course, if you accidentally place your foot on the floor when you are supposed to be non-weight-bearing, you most likely have done no damage.

Simply assess your situation, and return to your previous weight-bearing status. Signs that you need to see your healthcare provider if you accidentally break your weight-bearing status may include:

  • Increased pain in your injured or operated leg
  • An increase in redness or swelling in your leg
  • Difficulty moving around that causes more pain

If you have broken weight-bearing precautions after an injury or surgery—or have accidentally tripped and placed sudden, extreme weight on the leg—it's best to err on the side of caution and call your healthcare provider. Be honest and explain exactly what happened.

Recap

You risk jeopardizing the success of your leg surgery if you fail to adhere to the weight-bearing restrictions. If you fail to adhere for any reason and experience increased pain, redness, or swelling, call your healthcare provider immediately to avoid any further harm.

Summary

Weight-bearing restrictions help lower extremities heal properly after an injury or surgery.

They include non-weight-bearing restrictions (in which no weight is placed on the leg), toe-touch weight-bearing restrictions (in which the only toe is placed on the ground for balance), and partial weight-bearing restriction (typically overseen by a healthcare provider like a physical therapist). All involve some sort of assistive device, like a walker, crutches, or a cane.

It is important to adhere to the restrictions as failure to do so can jeopardize the success of your surgery and/or recovery. Call your doctor if you fail to adhere for any reason and experience increased pain, swelling, or redness in the leg.

A Word From Verywell

After injury or surgery, your healthcare provider may restrict your weight-bearing activities. If so, you will need to learn how to use assistive devices correctly, and this can be trickier than some people think.

Your healthcare provider or physical therapist can to teach you how to use these devices, but, if you find that you cannot manage them for whatever reason, let them know. People who lack upper body strength, for example, may find walkers easier to use than crutches. Others may require a wheelchair.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you walk on crutches with a non-weight-bearing leg?

    Move your crutches forward while standing on your stronger leg. Squeeze the crutches with your upper arms and hold the weight of your body through your arms and hands. As you keep your foot of the non-weight-bearing leg off the ground, step through the crutches on your stronger leg.

  • How do you shower with a non-weight-bearing leg?

    Ask your surgeon when it's safe to shower. Once you get the OK, consider using a shower chair to help keep your balance and sit comfortably. If possible, ask someone to help you get in and out of the shower to prevent falling.

  • How can you go up stairs with a non-weight-bearing leg?

    According to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, the safest way is to sit. Take a seat on the lowest step and reach your hands behind you to the next step. Use your hands and stronger leg to push yourself up to the next step, and repeat the process.

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4 Sources
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