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What to Expect After Elbow Replacement Surgery

If you’re preparing for elbow replacement surgery, you may be nervous about what to expect afterward. Here are a few things you can expect.

If you’ve made the decision to proceed with elbow replacement surgery after consultation with your surgeon, you may wonder what’s going to happen afterward. While recovery instructions vary depending on surgeon preference and the condition/treatment of your joint, here are a few common things you can expect. 

1. You’ll be moving ASAP.

Rehab begins quickly after surgery. This could include sitting up in a chair or taking a short walk down the hallway. There’s a wide variety of physical therapy programs that may be prescribed by surgeons. Some surgeons prefer formal physical therapy at specified intervals; whereas, others have their patients do rehabilitation exercises on their own at home. In some cases, physical therapy may be delayed for a period of time. You’ll likely be instructed on specific movement and therapy based on your individual procedure and condition. Your arm will likely be in a splint and it may be wrapped in an ice pack to help control pain and swelling. 

2. There are typically exercises for each stage of your rehabilitation.

The first stage of physical therapy tends to be passive motion exercises. This is when no active muscle force is used to move your elbow. The primary goal at this stage is to work on range of motion and limit scarring. The next phase of therapy typically involves active assisted exercises. Lastly, you’ll transition to active exercises and then strengthening exercises. The timing of each phase is based on the preference of the surgeon as well as your individual circumstances.

3. You’ll likely have some pain

There have been significant advances in how elbow pain is managed after elbow replacement surgery starting with the procedure itself and then extending into the recovery period. But, it’s normal to experience some post-operative pain. Talking with your care team before surgery can help you understand how much pain to expect, along with the typical decrease in pain that is expected after surgery. It’s important to follow the instructions regarding medications and other modalities closely. As a systematic approach is often used to minimize postoperative pain; you can ask about any warning signs where you’d need to alert their service.  

4. Surgeons typically give you detailed instructions on what to look for after surgery.

Talk to your surgeon about things to look out for after surgery, including increased pain, swelling, redness, drainage from the healing incision, or fever. Also, discuss when it’s ok to resume some of your previous activities such as gardening, playing golf, etc. 

5. Eventually, most patients feel better.

It’s important to understand that recovery after elbow replacement not only varies from person to person, but can also vary from elbow to elbow. Therefore, the recovery process may be longer or shorter than you anticipated. Having a realistic and open expectation about recovery is very important.

You should also understand that there are risks with any surgery. While uncommon, complications can occur during and after surgery. Some complications include, but are not limited to, infection, blood clots, implant breakage, malalignment, and premature wear, any of which can require additional surgery. Be sure to discuss these and other risks with your surgeon. You can also read more about possible risks and complications here.

No matter what stage of life you're at, it's normal to feel a little apprehensive about an upcoming joint replacement. Hopefully, this information will help you feel more prepared for surgery and optimize the results you get.

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