Knee Replacement Recovery: Tips To Speed Up The Healing Process

May 11, 2020

Knee Replacement Recovery: Tips To Speed Up The Healing Process

So you just got yourself a brand-new knee. Congrats, you're on your way to a relatively pain-free life!

But before you bust your moves on Salsa Night or go up a flight of stairs (look, Gina, no walker!), you should first ensure a full recovery.

Getting a new metal knee isn't a walk in the park, and your knee replacement recovery journey may be full of challenges, so here are some tips to help speed up the healing process:

How To Speed Up Knee Replacement Surgery Recovery Time

Setting The Right Expectations

Before we dive straight into wound care and the various therapies and exercises that come after a knee replacement surgery, it's important to set the right expectations.

A knee replacement surgery (otherwise known as arthroplasty) is a major surgical procedure that involves the removal of the damaged bones and cartilage that make up your knee joint. Once these parts are removed, metal and plastic components are inserted in their place.

The surgery has two variations: total knee replacement, where the entire knee joint is replaced, and partial knee replacement, where only a single component of the knee joint is fixed. In this article, we’ll be talking mostly about total knee replacement, since it’s more commonly done.

The surgery can last up to two hours long and the patient can stay in the hospital for two to five days.

While 97% of total knee replacement surgeries are successful, the road to recovery is quite long. Prognosis also depends on the individual's age, weight, and general health status prior to the surgery. Studies show that people who are healthier and are active prior to surgery recover much faster than people who aren’t. A pre-operative consultation with your primary healthcare provider and surgeon will give you a general idea of how long your recovery time will be.

Most patients find themselves able to do normal activities like getting up and walking around the house after a couple of weeks, however, full recovery can take about 6 months to a full year.

Here's the typical recovery timeline for post-op patients:

  • Able to leave the hospital - this depends on your physician and overall progress but most patients are discharged after 2-5 days of inpatient care. Generally, if you're pain-free, are able to walk several steps with a crutch or walker, and able to bend your knees, your doctor will recommend you to be sent home or to a short-term rehab care facility.
  • Able to use assistive devices - you can use canes or crutches immediately after the surgery up to 2 weeks post-op, depending on your progress.
  • Able to start physical therapy - you're generally encouraged to move around as soon as you can after surgery. Physical therapy can happen within a week of your procedure.
  • Able to drive - after 4-6 weeks if the operation was done on your driving legs. If your non-dominant limb was operated on, you can drive immediately as long as you're not on pain meds and have regained muscle strength.
  • Able to go back to work - after 1-3 months, depending on the job. People who work desk jobs can come back after a month, while people with jobs that need them to stand up, bend or lift, might take longer to get back. If your job involves a lot of stress to your knees, you might not be able to return to work at all.

Pain Management

Post-op pain is one of the most common things you'd notice some hours after surgery, especially when the local anesthetic has worn off. Your doctor usually prescribes low doses of opioid painkillers like morphine or oxycodone immediately after the surgery to help manage the worst of the pain. Afterward, you'll be prescribed oral analgesics and pain relievers for around 6-12 weeks.

It's important for you to take meds as prescribed to prevent dependence, pain flare-ups, and complications.

Now, while medication plays an important part in pain management, there are non-pharmacological ways to ease discomfort, like cold therapy.

Cold therapy is a great way to reduce pain and swelling around your knee. Cold temperature constricts your blood vessels and lessens inflammation. It also helps soothe nerves around the wounded area. To help with post-op pain, apply a cold pack around the wound, three times a day for about 10-15 minutes at a time. Be careful not to apply the cold pack directly to your skin though! Use a cloth cover to prevent ice burns and skin damage and to protect the incision from getting wet.

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Icewraps' reusable cold therapy packs come in all shapes and sizes. They're guaranteed to stay cold for a long period of time but will remain pliant for you to ice those hard-to-reach areas.

Once your wound has healed, you can use a cold therapy compression wrap like ActiveWrap or Pro Ice to manage swelling and help speed up recovery. Compression wraps combine the therapeutic benefits of cold therapy with compression, allowing the cold temperature to be delivered consistently throughout the limb. Self-fasteners secure these therapy wraps in place, so you can still move around without a hitch.

Other ways to alleviate pain include elevation of the site, and using topical pain-relief creams and ointments. Relaxation techniques like proper breathing exercises, soft music, guided imagery, and aromatherapy are also helpful in creating a calm, stress-free environment to help you manage pain.

Wound Care And Infection Prevention

Your incision will heal after about two weeks. Until then, you'll have to protect your wound to prevent an infection.

First, make sure that your incision site is nice and dry. Moisture is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria, so avoid soaking your wound in water or getting the bandages wet. Special wound dressings called steri-strips will be put in place to protect your wound from moisture and debris, but you shouldn't immerse your knee until after the incision is completely healed. Showers and bed baths are tolerated as long as you don’t direct the spray onto your wound.

Your physician will change your dressings and teach you how to clean the site right after discharge. Here’s the standard wound care procedure:
  • Wash your hands with soap and water before handling your wound to prevent infection.
  • If your wound is bleeding, apply pressure using clean dressing or gauze for about 5 minutes until the bleeding stops.
  • You can then wash the incision gently with water and gently tap it dry with a clean towel before putting on a new dressing.
  • Do not scrub or scratch the wound.
  • Never pull out sutures. These will either be removed by your physician or absorbed by your body.

 You must also know how to look out for signs of infection like the following:

  • Redness
  • Pain
  • Pus or foul-smelling discharge
  • Loss of function

If you see these signs and symptoms, call your doctor immediately.

Regaining Mobility

It's important to regain mobility as soon as possible to prevent muscle weakness and excessive scar tissue formation.

You're encouraged to move around immediately after surgery. Standing and ambulation with the help of a walker, crutch or cane are expected within 24 hours. Now, using these devices can be quite challenging, but don't worry, your physical therapist will teach you how to use them properly. You can also check out tutorials like the one above to learn more about using assistive devices.

You might also have to use a continuous passive motion device or CPM while recovering from the surgery. This machine gently stretches and flexes your knee to prevent stiffness and complications, helping you regain mobility faster. You can also place a rolled-up towel under your ankle to keep your operated knee straight while at rest.

Your medical team and physical therapist will also assist you in doing activities of daily living like getting up from bed, sitting up, using a commode or the bathroom, walking around, and dressing until you're able to do them by yourself with minimal help.

Physical Therapy

Brace yourself, the next three months following your surgery will be full of physical therapy visits and exercises. You might feel some pain at first, but discomfort is necessary to help you regain muscle strength, mobility, and range of motion. It will gradually decrease once your incision heals and once you adjust to your new knee.

As mentioned earlier, physical therapy will begin immediately after surgery. You'll receive inpatient therapy from your physical therapist, which involves stretches, exercises to help you with daily activities, walking with assistive devices, using a CPM, and slowly climbing up a few steps.

After a few days in the hospital, you may be discharged and allowed to go home or to a rehab care facility. Your physical therapist will develop a plan of care that will specifically cater to your individual needs.

Walking is highly recommended; you'll often be required to walk around for 30 minutes 3 times a day to help strengthen your muscles, regain balance, and prevent the excessive formation of scar tissue.

Other exercises that you can do early in the recovery phase include leg lifts, which involve lying in bed and lifting your straightened leg.

Quad sets are also great for strengthening your quadriceps muscles. To do quad sets, make sure that your leg lies flat in bed and tighten and relax your thigh muscles.

You will be required to do ankle pumps, too, wherein you flex and extend your ankle joint while lying down.

Later on, you'll be able to do more exercises while sitting down on a chair or standing up with a walker. Check out the video above to learn the usual exercises recommended after a knee replacement surgery.

Life After Knee Replacement Surgery

Knee replacement surgery has become one of the safest and most successful medical procedures to date, with as much as 80% of patients reporting that they're satisfied with their procedure. The success of the procedure, however, will depend on how well you respond to your treatment regimen.

A knee replacement implant will last for as long as 15-20 years when taken care of properly. To prevent complications and to make the most out of your new, spanking knee, it's important for you to follow your plan of care. Aside from religiously following your therapy regimen, you must also make sure to observe these best practices:
  • Do not overwork your knee. Just because you got new implants doesn't mean you can use and abuse them. They're not impervious to stress, so refrain from high-impact activities like jumping, running, and playing sports that involve jarring movements and quick changes in direction. Instead, stick to gentle exercises like walking, stationary cycling, swimming, water aerobics, and tai-chi. These activities help strengthen your knee without putting too much pressure on them.
  • Watch your weight. Being the biggest weight-bearing joint in your body, the knee is responsible for most of the heavy lifting. Additional pounds mean an additional burden to your knees. Reduce stress by keeping your weight in check, eating healthy, and exercising often.
  • Wear proper footwear. Wearing ill-fitting footwear can put stress on your knees and legs, so make sure to use comfortable shoes or sandals that have cushioned insoles for added support.

Final Thoughts

Recovering from knee replacement surgery may be tough, but it's the first step to living a new life away from pain and discomfort. The only way out is through, so hang in there! With the proper treatment regimen, the right attitude, and a strong support system, you'll be ready to walk around in those new knees in no time.

Have you recently had knee replacement surgery? Which stage of recovery was the hardest? Let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

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