Healing and recovering from knee replacement surgery is a gradual process. During the first 6 weeks, rapid healing takes place. A full recovery can take 6 months to 1 year or longer.
After surgery, efforts are devoted to controlling post-surgical pain, establishing good range of motion, and increasing muscle strength. Once fully recovered, a person typically has less knee pain and better knee function.
Healing from Knee Replacement Surgery
An orthopedic surgeon must cut through skin and deeper soft tissue, typically including parts of the quadriceps tendon, to perform knee replacement surgery. Bone and cartilage tissue from the ends of the femur (thighbone) and top of the tibia (shinbone) are cut and removed to make room for the artificial joint. These tissues need time to heal. A combination of rest and physical therapy can help keep healing and recovery on track.
Recovery times vary from person to person. Most people are able to return to their everyday activities in a matter of weeks. It may take 6 months to a year before a person can return to certain sports (and some high-impact activities, such as jogging and playing basketball, may be discouraged altogether).
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Factors that Can Slow Down Knee Replacement Recovery
Patients are advised to make their recovery a priority. Recovery may take longer if patients:
- Do not participate in physical therapy. Physical therapy is essential for establishing the new knee’s range of motion and strengthening muscles to support the new joint.
- Smoke or use other nicotine products. Nicotine use causes the blood vessels to narrow, limiting the amount of oxygen and nutrients that can travel in the bloodstream. If the bloodstream cannot deliver adequate oxygen and nutrients to the wound, healing slows down.
- Do not manage their diabetes. Uncontrolled type 1 or type 2 diabetes can negatively affect blood flow and the immune system, slowing down healing and increasing the risk for infection.
- Participate in risky behaviors. Not using an assistive device, such as a walker, can increase the risk of falling, which will slow down recovery or even necessitate another surgery. Drinking alcohol or using recreational drugs can also increase the risk of falling, and can even be life-threatening if mixed with prescribed painkillers.
A surgeon, recovery nurse, or other medical staff can further advise patients regarding behaviors that may slow down recovery.
Planning Ahead for Knee Replacement Surgery
No one wants their recovery period to be more difficult or last longer than necessary. Before surgery, patients can take steps to better ensure recovery goes smoothly. For example, quitting smoking before surgery can make a significant difference. Freezing meals that can be easily reheated and preparing the bedroom, bathroom, and living spaces can also help.