Knee Replacement Recovery: Timeline and Tips for Healing

Knee replacement surgery can ease pain and help your knee move better, allowing you to walk more easily. It involves replacing worn-out sections of the knee joint with new, artificial parts. This procedure is often the final treatment option for people with severe knee arthritis.

If you plan to have a knee replacement (medically known as knee arthroplasty), the recovery process should be at the forefront of your mind. Carefully planning your recovery with your healthcare team helps you feel more in control, recover faster, and avoid potential pitfalls post-surgery.

What is knee replacement surgery?

There are two types of knee replacement surgery: partial knee replacement (PKR) and total knee replacement (TKR). These procedures treat severe knee arthritis and other conditions, such as avascular necrosis (bone tissue death) for patients who failed conservative treatment options. Let’s explore the difference between the two.

Partial knee replacement

A partial knee replacement is offered when sections of the knee are worn out, but some healthy areas remain. Just the damaged portion is replaced with an artificial knee implant, preserving healthy bone, ligaments, and cartilage in the rest of the knee.

PKR often offers faster recovery and a better range of motion post-surgery. However, it is only available for people with less extensive knee damage.

Total knee replacement

A total knee replacement can restore function and relieve pain in a completely worn-out knee. The entire knee joint is replaced with artificial components made of metal, ceramic, plastic, or other materials.

TKR surgery is more extensive than a partial replacement. However, it can provide complete relief for a knee with advanced arthritis in all sections.

What is the recovery time for a knee replacement?

It usually takes around a year to recover completely from a knee replacement, but you can often resume most daily activities within three to six weeks after surgery. It's important to know that recovery time varies depending on many factors, including your age, activity levels before surgery, and other medical conditions.

In general, the recovery process is easier for a partial replacement than a total replacement. You can expect a shorter hospital stay and improved early range of motion following a PKR, while the risk of early complications may be slightly greater after a TKR.

Preparation for knee replacement recovery

Your medical team will provide you with information about what to expect before, during, and after surgery, as well as an opportunity to ask any questions you have. This will help you prepare for surgery and pave the way for a smooth recovery after your knee replacement. Here are some of the ways you can prepare:

  • Quit smoking. Smoking can slow down your healing rate after surgery and put you at greater risk of complications. But there’s good news — if you quit at least 4 weeks before your operation, your risk of complications is closer to that of a person who’s never smoked than to an individual who smoked within those 4 weeks.
  • Follow pre-operative instructions. Carefully read any leaflets you are given and listen closely to advice from your healthcare team. Follow their advice on medications, diet restrictions, fasting, or preparations you need to complete before your surgery.
  • Arrange transport and support. You won’t be able to drive home after the procedure, so you’ll need a friend, family member, or taxi to take you. If you live alone, having someone stay with you for the first few days is a good idea. You may need help with getting around the house and preparing meals.
  • Prepare your home. Clear hallways, remove trip hazards, and rearrange furniture as needed. Ask your medical team for advice on preparing your home because they may recommend specialist equipment. This can include chair raisers, crutches, grab rails, a walker, a raised toilet seat, or a long-handled grabber.

Your recovery timeline after knee replacement

As discussed, many factors affect recovery, and each person has a unique recovery timeline after knee replacement. However, recovery usually follows a general pattern.

The first week after knee surgery

For the first few days after surgery, you will likely remain in the hospital. You’ll be monitored for any complications and start to move around gently. Pain management strategies include pain medication, ice, and preventing stiffness by moving your knee regularly.

It’s important to get moving within 24 hours of surgery to reduce your risk of forming a blood clot in your deep veins. These clots can get loose and travel through your bloodstream into your lung vessels and block blood flow, so it's best to do everything to avoid them. To lower the risk of clots, your doctor will prescribe anti-clotting medication and may recommend wearing compression stockings.

After the first few days, you’ll go home and spend the rest of the week gaining confidence around the house and possibly walking in your garden or street with crutches.

Long-term recovery

Your mobility should continue to improve after the first week. In the following weeks, your surgeon and physical therapist may advise you on returning to work, sports, and driving, but it's important to note that these timelines may vary.

Here is what the recovery timeline often looks like after week one:

  • Week 2. You start to walk further outdoors with your crutches and attend physical therapy sessions. Be sure to talk to your provider on how to stay active safely after knee replacement surgery.
  • Weeks 3–5. Generally, you move on to more challenging exercises and walk further each week. You continue to have physical therapy and may stop using your crutches, progressing to a cane or walking unaided. You can work from home if you feel well enough.
  • Week 6. At this point, most people should no longer be using crutches and may return to driving if their health provider allows. If you have a desk job, you may return to the office.
  • Weeks 7–11. You continue to get stronger and fitter, returning to your normal social life. Your pain decreases, and your knee becomes more mobile.
  • Week 12. Most people can return to active jobs or sports. However, certain types of heavier work and high-impact sports are still off-limits.
  • Week 13–1 year. The bulk of your healing takes place in the first 12 weeks, but can take up to a year for your knee to fully recover. By 1 year post-surgery, you are expected to have a functioning, pain-free knee.

Rehabilitation and physical therapy

Physical therapy is key for a smooth recovery after knee replacement and usually begins within 24 hours of your operation. It focuses on restoring mobility, strength, and function to maximize recovery and prevent knee injuries after the procedure.

Physical therapy after a knee replacement is mainly exercise-based but may include manual therapy and massage. For the first few days, you will complete bed exercises and practice walking in the hospital with a walker or crutches.

After returning home, you will attend regular physical therapy sessions to gradually build confidence in walking without aids. These sessions will include activities to mobilize, stretch, and strengthen your new knee and the muscles surrounding it. You’ll be given weekly goals, such as increasing your walking distance, and receive home exercises to practice every day.

A knee replacement can provide long-term relief from chronic, severe knee pain and allow you to return to an active life when conservative treatment options fail. However, it requires a big commitment to recovery, and it’s not a decision to be made lightly. Speak to your healthcare provider about whether it’s an option for you.

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