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Knee Replacement Recovery: What To Expect

Knee Replacement Recovery: What To Expect

In just a few short years, recovery time has halved for new knee recipients.

Wear and tear on joints — particularly the knees — is a normal part of healthy aging. But as cartilage breaks down and bone scrapes against bone, stiffness and discomfort can turn into debilitating pain and loss of function. Chronic joint pain often keeps us from living active lives, eroding our quality of life and harming our health.

An increasingly common solution to this deterioration is total knee replacement surgery (TKA), with nearly 600,000 surgeries performed annually. And thanks to advances in technology and technique — including robotic-assisted surgical tools like the ROSA Knee & Hip System — recovery times for these major surgeries have been drastically reduced.

Gone are the days of three-week hospital stays for a knee replacement. A lot of people are going home the next day!

Getting Back to Life

So what is the norm these days, as far as recovery and returning to normal activity after a knee replacement surgery?

A full recovery may take up to a year, but most of the rehabilitation will be done at home or through an outpatient rehab program. And while just a few years ago, most patients would stay in the hospital for three to five days post-surgery, many patients are now going home the very next day. Some even the same day.

“This has now become an outpatient procedure for most people,” Physical Therapist Jeri Floyd, who specializes in post-surgery rehab at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. “A few people do stay for a second or third day, with pain, blood pressure concerns or other issues, but this is becoming less common.”

Of course, experiences will differ and recovery can be affected by age, health, pre-surgical fitness and dedication to rehab exercises. But if you’re considering a total knee replacement, here’s what you can expect the first few days after surgery.

Surgery Day

After surgery, you’ll wake up in the recovery room, where your care team will monitor your blood pressure, breathing and oxygen level, and will focus on managing your post-op pain. Once the doctor gives the green light, you will transition to inpatient rehabilitation.

Depending on when you arrive at inpatient rehab, you may be able to start rehabilitation that same day. “The sooner you get moving, the better,” explains Floyd. “We will get you up. We will do the exercises.”

Surgery-day goals — regardless of whether you begin rehab exercises that day — will include: managing post-surgery nausea; eating a little, starting with ice chips, then clear liquids and then light fare; urinating (hopefully within five to six hours post-op); controlling pain with ice and medication; and with assistance, transferring to the bedside commode.

Some patients will even go home the day of surgery, as long as the pain is controlled. But if you stay the night, you may be given IV antibiotics, and your blood pressure, temperature and oxygen levels will be monitored.

Post-Op Rehab

If you began rehab exercises the day prior, you may experience greater pain and discomfort today. This is normal, and likely due to residual soreness from the exercises and/or the lack of anesthetic lingering in your system.

On this day, rehab for your new knee begins in earnest.

Simple movements and exercises will help familiarize you with your new knee and facilitate proper scar formation to promote mobility. The physical therapist will lead you through four key exercises that you will use throughout your rehabilitation journey; these focus on the ankles, to prevent blood clots; the thighs, to strengthen the muscles around the new knee implant; the heels, to improve joint mobility and range of motion; and the legs, to boost leg strength. You also will practice bending and straightening your knee as much as possible.

Assisted by the physical therapist and a walker, you also will go for a short stroll (up to 50 feet), focusing on balance and maintaining proper form, before returning to the bed. If you have stairs or steps in your house, your rehab may begin to incorporate those as well.

NOTE: If you experience dizziness, nausea or unmanageable pain throughout the process, alert a care team member. While some pain is to be expected, it should not interfere with rehab exercises.


TKA Rehab & Recovery

There are four key exercises the physical therapist will lead you through at this time, and you will continue with these throughout your rehabilitation journey.

  • Ankle Pumps – Flex your ankles by first pointing down with your toes and then pointing them back up at you. These improve circulation in your legs and help prevent any blood clots.
  • Quadriceps Sets, or Thigh Tighteners – Lie in bed with both legs straight, and tighten the thigh muscles directly above your knees, further straightening your legs and gently pressing the backs of your knees into the bed. These help strengthen the muscles cradling your new knee.
  • Heel Slides – Wrapping a towel or cloth around one foot like a stirrup, keep the other leg straight while maintaining your heel against the bed and sliding that foot towards you, bending at the knee, and then straightening it back out, sliding your heel away from you.
  • Leg Raises – Keeping your leg straight, gently raise it only a few inches and hold for a moment before gently lowering it back to the bed.

Afterward, the therapist will help you practice bending and straightening as much as possible.

Once you’re able to move safely with a walker, have pain under control, have urinated and do not show any blood pressure concerns or other issues, you will be discharged to continue your rehab in the comfort of your home. Home health therapy will typically visit the day after discharge and will follow up for about two weeks, until the first follow-up with your surgeon.

Be sure to let your healthcare team know if you experience increased or unexplained swelling that’s “angry red,” possibly indicating infection, or unexplained, severe pain, which should be controlled by medication at this point. Also keep an eye out for increased drainage from the incision.

Next Steps

Though your in-hospital rehabilitation has come to an end and the worst of the pain is behind you, full recovery and rehabilitation from your Total Knee Arthroplasty will be the result of months of diligent outpatient work, both with a therapist and on your own.

Connect with SMH’s Ortho Experts

Have a question about orthopedic surgery? Wonder whether joint replacement is right for you? Ask our Ortho nurse navigator at 941-917-7963 or visit our webpage.SMH Copywriter, Phil Lederer

Written by Sarasota Memorial copywriter Philip Lederer, MA, who crafts a variety of external communications for the healthcare system. SMH’s in-house wordsmith, Lederer earned his Master’s degree in Public Administration and Political Philosophy from Morehead State University, KY, and is already having knee pain.

Posted: May 2, 2023,
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