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Total Knee Replacement: What to expect at home

Total Knee Replacement

What to expect at home

knee with replacement parts

Your Recovery

A knee replacement is a type of surgery that takes out the damaged knee joint and replaces it with parts made of metal, plastic, or ceramic. After surgery, you will use crutches or a walker. You will need someone to help you at home for a few days or weeks or until you have more energy and can move around better.

You may go home with a bandage and stitches, staples, skin glue, or tape strips. Your nurse will tell you how to care for your incision.

You may have some mild pain and swelling after surgery. Your doctor may give you medicine for the pain. Take your pain medicine regularly to feel comfortable. Expect to use less pain medicine every day. Stop your pain medicine as soon as you can meet your therapy goals without it. Learn more at Adult Pain: Treatment, Management, and Support.

You will keep doing the physiotherapy you started in the hospital. The better you do with your exercises, the sooner you will get your strength and movement back.

Your doctor will tell you when you can go back to work or other activities. This will depend on what type of work and activities you do.

This care sheet gives you a general idea about how long it will take for you to recover. But each person recovers at a different pace. Follow the steps below to get better as quickly as possible.

How can you care for yourself at home?

Activity

It’s important to do the following to help you recover and get home more quickly:

  • Do your phase 1 and phase 2 exercises regularly. The sooner your leg muscles get stronger, the sooner you can get back to your normal activities.
  • Take pain medicine at least 30 to 45 minutes before you exercise (if you find the exercises make you really sore).
  • Use your walker or crutches until your healthcare team tells you it’s safe to walk on your own.
  • Walk often but not more than what feels safe and comfortable. Going for a few short walks is better than 1 long walk. Have someone go with you on your walks until you feel it’s safe for you to go on your own. Bring your phone in case you need to call for help.

Let your healthcare team know if you have discomfort that lasts a long time after your surgery. They can offer ways to help you manage it.

You may notice a click in your operated knee or feel numb on the outside of your knee. Clicking and numbness are common for several months after surgery. They usually go away over time. Tell your healthcare team if the clicking hurts.

First 3 months after surgery

Good activities for the first 3 months after surgery are:

After 3 months

If you’re feeling ready 3 months after surgery, you might try some of the following activities you enjoy:

  • swimming and other pool exercises (without twisting motions such as a whip kick)
  • low-impact fitness exercises with no jumping, twisting, quick starts or stops, or other movements that put sudden force on your knee
  • walking on a treadmill
  • golfing, dancing, or hiking within your limits
  • riding a bike (The seat and handlebars should be high enough for comfort.)
  • gardening (Use raised beds or long-handled tools for ease and comfort.)

Activities to avoid

Talk to your surgeon about any sports or other activities that involve:

  • lifting and pushing heavy objects (25 lbs. or 11 kg)
  • jumping, twisting, quick starts or stops, or other movements that put sudden force on your knee
  • physical contact (such as contact sports like hockey or football)

For more information on physiotherapy services in Alberta go to Physiotherapy Services.

Driving

Your surgeon will tell you when it’s safe to start driving again. Most people can start to drive again 6 weeks after surgery.

Sex

Many people have questions about having sex after a knee replacement. It’s usually safe to have sex about 4 to 6 weeks after your knee surgery. But you should wait until you feel ready and are comfortable. There are many other types of sexual activity that are safe for you and your partner to try. Let your partner take the more active role.

Medicines

  • Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. You will also get instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • You'll need to take a blood thinner after surgery to lower the chance of getting a blood clot. You'll be given a prescription for a blood thinner to take for a few weeks after you go home. This medicine could be in pill form or as a shot (injection). If a shot is necessary, your healthcare provider will tell you how to do this.

Eating well

  • By the time you leave the hospital, you will probably be eating your normal diet. Your doctor may recommend that you take iron and vitamin supplements.
  • Eat healthy foods, and watch your portion sizes. Try to stay at your ideal weight. Managing your weight will help your new knee joint last longer.
  • If your bowel movements are not regular right after surgery, try to avoid constipation and straining. Drink plenty of water. Your doctor may suggest fibre, a stool softener, or a mild laxative.

Dentist and other appointments

The next time you see a doctor or dentist, tell them that you had a knee replacement. You may need to take antibiotics before you have a medical or dental procedure.

Incision care

Your nurse will talk to you about how to care for your incision at home:

  • You may have a dressing over the cut. A dressing helps the incision heal and protects it. Your nurse will tell you how to take care of this.
  • If you have staples, you will get your staples taken out 10 to 14 days after surgery.
  • If you have skin glue (skin adhesive or liquid stitches) or tape strips on the cut, leave the glue or tape on until it falls off.
  • You may shower 24 to 48 hours after surgery. Pat the incision dry. Avoid using soap, lotion, or cream on the incision.

Ice and elevation

  • Your ankle may swell for a few weeks after knee surgery. To help with pain or swelling, you can put ice or a cold pack on the incision area for 20 minutes at a time. (Always put a cloth between the ice and your skin). Raise your leg on pillows so your foot is higher than your heart.
  • If your doctor recommended cold therapy using a portable machine, follow the instructions that came with the machine.

Other instructions

  • Wear compression stockings if your doctor told you to. These may help to prevent blood clots. Your doctor will tell you how long you need to keep wearing the compression stockings.
  • Try to prevent falls. To avoid falling:
    • Arrange furniture so that you will not trip on it.
    • Get rid of throw rugs and move electrical cords out of the way.
    • Put grab bars in showers and bathtubs.
    • Wear shoes with sturdy, flat soles.
    • Walk only in areas with plenty of light.
    • Try to avoid icy or snowy sidewalks. Choose shoes with good traction, or consider using traction devices that attach to your shoes.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 or have someone take you to the nearest emergency department if you have:

  • pain in your chest
  • trouble breathing or are short of breath

Call your case manager if:

  • You have more pain, swelling, or tenderness in your leg (and lying down with your leg up in a straight position for at least 20 minutes doesn’t help).
  • You are still taking pain medicine 6 weeks after surgery.
  • Your incision gets red, hard, hot, swollen, or is draining.
  • You have redness or pain in your lower legs, even when resting.
  • Your temperature is over 38.5°C or you have chills.
  • You have sudden pain, less range of motion in your knee, and can’t put any weight on your leg.
  • You have blood in your stool (poop), urine (pee), or in any fluid you cough up.
  • Your nose bleeds and it won’t stop.
  • You have a lot of bruising that doesn’t seem to go away. (It’s normal to have bruising above and below the incision for 3 weeks after surgery.)

If you can’t reach your case manager or someone else on your healthcare team, call your family doctor or Health Link at 811.

Call your family doctor if:

  • You have diarrhea (loose stool) that doesn’t stop after a few days.
  • Your healthcare team makes changes to your prescription medicines after your surgery.
  • You have questions or concerns about your health that isn’t related to your surgery.

Let your case manager know if you see your family doctor or go to the emergency department about anything related to your knee surgery.

To see this information online and learn more, visit MyHealth.Alberta.ca/health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=custom.ab_totalkneereplacement_ac.

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For 24/7 nurse advice and general health information call Health Link at 811.

Current as of: August 28, 2023

Author: Bone and Joint Health SCN, Alberta Health Services

This material is not a substitute for the advice of a qualified health professional. This material is intended for general information only and is provided on an "as is", "where is" basis. Although reasonable efforts were made to confirm the accuracy of the information, Alberta Health Services does not make any representation or warranty, express, implied or statutory, as to the accuracy, reliability, completeness, applicability or fitness for a particular purpose of such information. Alberta Health Services expressly disclaims all liability for the use of these materials, and for any claims, actions, demands or suits arising from such use.