How long does it take to recover from total knee replacement surgery?

Most patients undergoing total knee replacement surgery want to know when they’ll be able to return to their normal life. Questions about “recovery time” are common. There are many factors that can affect recovery time, but typically patients can return to normal life activities within 3 to 6 months.

To be more specific we should examine the difference between “short-term recovery” and “long-term recovery” – which are terms you may hear when talking with orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, nurses and other health care providers. Short-term recovery requires the patient to walk with minimal aid or no aid and to give up major pain medications in favor of over-the-counter pain relief. This generally occurs within twelve weeks after surgery. Long-term recovery is what you’re talking about when you talk about returning to work and normal life activities. Your doctors and therapists will look for complete healing of surgical wounds and internal soft tissues in addition to the resumption of normal daily life.

Short-term Recovery

Short-term recovery involves the early stages of recovery, such as the ability to get out of the hospital bed and be discharged from the hospital. On days 1 or 2, most total knee replacement patients are given a walker to stabilize them. By the third day after the surgery, most patients can go home. Short-term recovery also involves getting off major pain killers and having a full night’s sleep without pills. Once a patient no longer needs walking aids and can walk around the house without pain–in addition to being able to walk two blocks around the house without pain or resting–all of these are considered signs of short-term recovery. The average short-term recovery time for a total knee replacement is about 12 weeks.

Long-term Recovery

Long-term recovery involves the complete healing of surgical wounds and internal soft tissues. When a patient can return to work and the activities of daily living, they are on the way to achieving the full term of recovery. Another indicator is when the patient finally feels normal again. The average long-term recovery for total knee replacement patients is between 3 and 6 months. Dr. Ian C. Clarke, medical researcher and founder of Peterson Tribology Laboratory for joint replacement at Loma Linda University, writes, “Our surgeons consider that patients have ‘recovered’ when their current status has improved much beyond their arthritic pre-operative pain level and dysfunction.”

There are a number of contributing factors that influence recovery time. Josephine Fox, the BoneSmart.org knee replacement Forum Lead Administrator and nurse of over fifty years, says that a positive attitude is everything. Patients should be prepared for diligent work, some pain and an expectation that the future is going to be bright. Having access to information about knee replacement surgery and a strong support network is also important to recovery. Josephine writes, “Many small or large issues crop up during recovery, from a pimple near the wound to an unexpected and unusual pain. In these times it is good to have a support network to turn to and get timely feedback. Somebody out there has very likely experienced the same or similar and the ‘expert’ will have a word as well.”

image credit: Tim Evanson


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