Share It

Ask a physical therapist: What should I expect while recovering from knee replacement surgery?


by Amy Haynes, orthopedic physical therapist

You’re ready to book that hiking trip. You’re ready to put after-dinner walks back into your routine. You’re ready to take your life back. You’re ready for a knee replacement. But do you feel prepared for the recovery process?

Whether you’re still talking with a doctor about your options or you’re counting down the days until your knee replacement surgery, the more prepared you are, the more likely you are to have a successful recovery. So, what can you expect after knee replacement surgery? What does recovery look like?

As a physical therapist who specializes in orthopedics, helping people recover after joint replacement surgeries is a big part of my job. I’ve worked with hundreds of knee replacement patients. It takes time, effort and targeted physical therapy to heal your knee and get you back to your day-to-day activities – and keep you doing what you love for as long as you can.

Below I answer some of the most common questions patients ask me about what they can expect as they recover from knee replacement surgery.

Answers to common questions about the knee replacement recovery process

When can I stand up after knee replacement surgery?

You’ll start standing and walking on your new knee almost immediately – just a few hours after surgery. Movement is key to a successful recovery.

At first, you’ll take short walks – for example, from your bed to the bathroom and around your room. Within 24 hours, you’ll have your first physical therapy session where you’ll be taught specific exercises to strengthen your knee and increase mobility with your new joint.

Will I need to use an assistive device after knee replacement surgery?

Yes. And depending on the type of surgery you’ve had (e.g. full or partial knee replacement; single or double knee replacement), you’ll probably need to use an assistive device for at least a few weeks.

Assistive devices make certain activities like walking, using the restroom and dressing easier to do. They also help keep you safe.

The types of assistive devices you’ll need after knee replacement surgery depend on your condition, but common devices include:

  • Walking aids like crutches, canes or walkers
  • Shoehorns and sock aids
  • Grab bars around your home
  • Reachers and tongs
  • Raised toilet seat
  • Tub chair

The good news is some assistive devices may be covered by your insurance, so be sure to check with your insurance provider before you go in for surgery.

When can I get back to my usual activities?

The timing for getting back to typical activities varies from person to person. The one thing that doesn’t vary is the need for physical therapy to help get you there.

Here’s a high-level look of the progress you can expect to see in the first three months with regular physical therapy:

  • One month after surgery: You’ll probably start doing low-impact, daily activities like driving, returning to work, household chores and regular errands.
  • Two months after surgery: Around the seven-week mark, you can likely start enjoying low-impact physical activities again. Many of my patients love getting active by swimming, biking and taking longer walks at this point in their recovery.
  • Three months after surgery: You may be able to return to high-impact physical activity like running, skiing or other activities you enjoy. You’ll need to start slow and be gentle with yourself, but you’ll be able to work up to the level of activity you were used to.

All that said, it’s important to follow your post-op surgery instructions – including regular follow-ups with your surgeon. They’ll let you know what you’re ready for during your follow-up visits and coordinate recommendations with your physical therapist.

If you’re not sure an activity will be safe on your new knee, don’t hesitate to ask your surgeon or physical therapist.

How long will I need physical therapy after knee replacement surgery?

Physical therapy (sometimes called rehabilitation) is one of the key parts of your recovery. Physical therapists like myself use a combination of exercises, education and hands-on care to strengthen your body, teach you how to avoid injury and help you learn how to use your new knees.

You’ll start regularly working with physical therapists within the first week after surgery. At TRIA, we’ll work with you to develop a personalized therapy plan, which usually involves about three months of meeting with your physical therapist.

These first three months of physical therapy after knee replacement surgery are critical to setting you up for a successful recovery. And many of the moves you learn will be useful long-term to keep your joint feeling good.

Treatment plans are unique to each patient, but here’s what you can expect:

One to three weeks after surgery

The first few weeks after knee replacement surgery your physical therapist will focus on helping you reduce pain and feel more confident on your feet.

You’ll start working on a daily routine of strengthening and flexibility exercises with your physical therapist. During this time, you’ll also work on bending your knees, getting up from a sitting position and walking.

Typically, you’ll be able to bend your knees at a 90 degree angle, fully straighten your knee, and walk for at least 10 consecutive minutes during this stage of physical therapy.

You can expect to use assistive devices like walkers, crutches or canes during this phase of recovery. But you may be able to progress past the use of a more supportive device to only needing a cane, or nothing, at the three- or four-week mark.

If you have a sedentary job, you’ll likely be able to return to work after a couple weeks – beginning with half days and progressing from there. But ask your doctor if it’s safe for you to travel to work and sit with your knees bent for long periods of time before getting back to your normal work schedule.

Four to six weeks after surgery

After about a month, your knee strength will improve. Plus, you’ll feel more comfortable as your knee pain and swelling decreases.

Depending on the type of knee replacement you had and how your recovery has been going, you may rely less or not at all on certain assistive devices.

During this phase of physical therapy, your physical therapist might introduce more low-impact activities like swimming, cycling or longer walks. The goal will be to improve your endurance so you’re able to get back to typical daily activities.

At this phase, you will also work toward bending your knee to 120 degrees, begin climbing stairs and be able to return to light household activities and chores.

Seven to 12 weeks after surgery

Two months after recovery, you’ll probably notice you’re much more mobile than you were the first few weeks after surgery.

During this final phase of physical therapy, you’ll do more intense exercises that increase your strength and mobility. This will likely include more strenuous aerobic and strength exercises. 

If you have any high-impact activities that you enjoy, your physical therapist will also teach you techniques for modifying those activities so you can safely enjoy them while you recover.

12 weeks after surgery and beyond

Now that you’re stronger and more confident moving with your new knee, the frequency of in-person physical therapy sessions may start to decrease around 12 weeks after surgery. But you’ll need to continue your physical therapy exercises at home.

At TRIA, our physical therapists will create personalized home routines to help you reach your goals to return to regular activities and hobbies. These routines will be an important part of your continued recovery after a knee replacement. Full recovery from a knee replacement, on average, can take up to one year.

What medicines will I be prescribed after knee replacement surgery to help manage pain?

Pain after knee replacement surgery is normal. Most of my patients have some level of pain and swelling for several weeks.

At TRIA, we’ll work with you to create a plan to help manage your pain. Plans commonly include a combination of:

  • Home remedies such as applying a cold compress or elevation to reduce swelling in your knee
  • Hands-on care (e.g. massages) to reduce inflammation and swelling
  • Prescription strength nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Movement strategies
  • Over-the-counter medications (e.g. Tylenol, Aleve, etc.)

How can I learn more about what to expect after getting a knee replacement?

The best way to learn what to expect while recovering from knee replacement surgery is to talk to an expert orthopedist.

Our team of orthopedic doctors and orthopedic surgeons at TRIA are some of the best in the Midwest. We’ve performed thousands of joint replacements, and 97 percent of our patients report being able to walk down stairs without difficulty a year after surgery.

When you’re ready for surgery, our team of expert orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists and other care providers will be by your side every step of the way from your first appointment through your recovery.

Amy Haynes, PT, DPT, Physical Therapist TRIA Orthopaedic Center

About Amy Haynes, PT, DPT

Amy Haynes, PT, DPT specializes in orthopedic physical therapy with an emphasis on total joint replacement and osteoarthritis. She enjoys helping patients remain independent within their home environments for as long as possible and continue their recreational past-times.

Share It