What to Expect From a Knee Replacement Surgery

By Michael Watson

A growing number of seniors are exploring knee replacement surgery to address recurring knee pain, arthritis, and stiffness. Studies show that seniors who undergo joint replacement surgery experience reduced pain and disability when compared to seniors who choose not to have surgery. In most cases, seniors who have knee replacement surgery have exhausted less invasive treatments such as corticosteroid injections or medications, and are seeking improved mobility and quality of life. Below is a look at knee replacement surgery and the keys to a successful recovery from surgery.

What Happens Before Knee Replacement Surgery?

Before you undergo knee replacement surgery, you will have several visits with your doctor to discuss your options. Your doctor will provide you with specific pre-surgery instructions to follow for a safe and successful procedure. 

Knee replacement surgery is typically performed in a hospital by a trained orthopedic surgeon. Prior to surgery, you will need to put on a gown to wear. The surgical staff will likely insert an intravenous (IV) line in your hand and position you properly on the surgical table. If you have any hair growth around the knee area, it may be removed prior to surgery. Then, your anesthesiologist will begin administering the anesthetic while checking your vital signs regularly.

What Happens During Knee Replacement Surgery?

Once the general anesthesia has taken hold, your knee area will be cleansed with an antiseptic solution and your orthopedic surgeon will begin the procedure by making an incision. Then, your surgeon will remove the damaged bone and cartilage from your knee and will replace the it with an artificial joint. Throughout the process, your anesthesiologist will monitor your heart rate and blood pressure to ensure that your vital signs remain stable.

The procedure typically takes 1 to 2 hours to complete, though the process will take longer if patients have both knees replaced simultaneously. 

Advances in arthroplasty have paved the way for some patients to qualify for a new, less invasive type of knee replacement surgery. This type of procedure is known as minimally-invasive quadriceps-sparing total knee replacement. It involves a smaller incision and less trauma to the quadriceps muscle, which can lead to shorter recovery times. Your surgeon and medical team will review surgical options with you prior to your surgery to determine which type of knee replacement is best for your specific situation.

What Happens After Knee Replacement Surgery?

After your surgery is completed, your anesthesiologist will cease administration of your general anesthetic. You will be taken to the recovery area for close monitoring as you gradually wake up from your surgery. You will slowly begin to regain feeling in your knee area and will feel groggy.

Because your mobility will be limited after the procedure, most patients remain catheterized for a couple of days after the procedure. Your knee will be covered with a sterile bandage, and you also may notice a drainage tube designed to remove fluid from your knee. This tube will be remove as your knee heals. You will have stitches, staples, tape strips, or glue around the incision. Stitches or staples will be removed by your doctor. 

What Is the Recovery Process Like? 

Most patients spend approximately 2 to 5 days in the hospital, though the exact amount of time varies according to your overall health condition. Seniors should be able to move around with a walker before leaving the hospital. Patients are discouraged from driving after surgery, with most medical teams recommending that patients wait  4 weeks before resuming driving. 

Upon discharge from the hospital, patients typically transition to one of the following 3 settings to complete the recovery process:

  • A skilled nursing facility (SNF) 

  • An inpatient rehabilitation facility (IRF)

  • Home, where outpatient or home health services may be warranted

Regardless of the recovery location, patients are urged to attend all of their physical therapy and occupational therapy appointments. Physical therapy exercises are important because they help strengthen the muscles surrounding your knee and help you regain your full range of motion. 

Occupational therapy helps patients regain their ability to function independently again. For instance, patients will learn how to safely sit, stand, and get in and out of a vehicle or the bathtub without hindering the recovery process.

Even with these exercises, your knee may still be stiff for some time. In fact, you may still be swollen or have mild pain up to 6 months after surgery. 

What Can You Do To Aid Recovery?

Patients and their caregivers play a key role in the recovery process. You can get a jump start on the recovery process by making some minor modifications to your home environment to help prevent injury and facilitate mobility. Here are 10 tips to help promote safe recovery within a home setting:

  1. Follow the suggestions provided by your doctor and physical therapist.

  2. Invest in a raised toilet seat, temporary railings, and ramps to promote mobility and safety.

  3. Clear hallways and floors of clutter.

  4. Remove throw rugs and cover slick floors with a slip-resistant covering. Repair any uneven flooring or pavement to help prevent trips and falls.

  5. Steer clear of chairs that rock, swivel, or roll. 

  6. Make sure all areas of the home are well illuminated. 

  7. Get up and moving according to your doctor's orders. Avoid jogging, jumping, and other sports until cleared by a physician to take part in rigorous physical activity.

  8. Keep the home area clean and sanitized to help safeguard against infection.

  9. Properly care for your incision according to your doctor's instructions. 

  10. Maintain a healthy diet. 

In addition to following these tips, patients should use any walkers, canes, or other mobility aids as directed by their therapists and medical teams. And remember to notify your doctor if you notice any sign of infection.

What Is the Best Way To Ensure a Successful Recovery?

Clearly, patients play a key role in the recovery process. However, the single best way to ensure a successful recovery for seniors who have knee replacement surgery is to seek the services of a trusted home care provider.

Home care is particularly beneficial for high-risk discharges or patients with elevated health risks. A home care service provider can help facilitate recovery by offering the following services:

  • Transportation to and from physical therapy appointments

  • Meal preparation

  • Hands on support with daily activities

  • Medication reminders

To learn more about what to expect from a knee replacement surgery, refer to our Hip and Knee Replacement Guide. Access our free content library by first finding your local Caring office 

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Tags: Knee replacement