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What to Expect After Foot or Ankle Surgery

Preparing for an ankle replacement, bunion or hammer toe surgery? Here are a few things you can reportedly expect through your recovery.

If you're preparing for a foot or ankle surgery like total ankle replacement, bunion or hammer toe surgery, it can be helpful to set realistic expectations in advance. Below you’ll find a list of 5 things you can expect after your surgery. While these procedures are fairly common and may help restore your confidence and quality of life, they do come with risks. Talk to your surgeon about the following risks in the links below. 

1. You will likely have some degree of pain

Pain and swelling is common after foot or ankle surgery, especially in the first few days.2,4,6 Your medical team should provide you with plenty of solutions to help keep your pain under control, including medication, ice, elevation, and relaxation and breathing exercises.

While unpleasant, pain during the post-operative recovery period is expected. 2,4,6 If your pain doesn't get better, is accompanied by other issues like fever, chills, or bleeding, or is too intense for you to move around safely, tell your doctor immediately.2,4

2. You'll be moving right away—just a bit differently than usual

The amount of weight, if any, you’re able to apply on your surgical foot depends on the procedure you received. Some bunion or hammer toe procedures will allow you to bear weight on your foot immediately with use of a surgical shoe.1,2,4 Others will require a period of limited or no weight bearing.1,2,4 If undergoing a total ankle replacement, you likely won’t be able to place any weight on your surgical leg at first. Your doctor will advise when it’s safe to begin bearing weight again.6

To protect the healing site and help avoid complications from occurring, your doctor will give you specific weight bearing instructions (how much weight, if any, you can put on your surgical foot).1,2,4,6 These instructions will be based on your specific surgical outcome and will likely progress throughout the healing process from non-weight bearing to full-weight bearing.

Non-weight bearing means that the involved foot can't touch the ground at all, even when you're going from sitting to standing up, climbing stairs, or getting in and out of a car. For this reason, a physical therapist will typically teach you how to move about while maintaining these precautions using an assistive device like a walker, knee scooter, or crutches.

3. You'll have follow-up visits

Follow-up visits with your surgeon are important because they help your doctor monitor your recovery and allow for any necessary changes to be made. For example, hammer toe surgery patients need to see their surgeon about 4 to 6 weeks after surgery to have the pins removed.1,2

Follow-up appointments also allow your surgeon to remove or change any casts, splints, bandages or stitches, and progress your weight-bearing status.1,3,4,6 Be sure you have transportation to and from your follow-up visits and come with a list of questions and concerns.

4. You may have permanent adjustments to your footwear

When you're still in a cast or splint after your surgery, make sure your other foot is supported by a sturdy shoe, such as a sneaker.4 Keep in mind that even after you've fully recovered, your doctor may recommend some permanent changes to your shoe wardrobe.4

For example, people who have had bunion or hammer toe surgery may no longer be able to wear narrow pointed shoes, like high heels or dress shoes.4 Some people also feel more comfortable wearing a slightly larger shoe size to ensure their toes have plenty of room. Shoes such as flip-flops or ballet flats may also be inappropriate because they may not provide adequate support and may throw off ankle alignment, which could increase the risk of future foot and ankle problems.5

Of course, if you've had bunion or hammer toe surgery to improve the look and comfort of your feet, it's understandable to want to show them off a bit! So, talk to your doctor or a podiatrist about the best shoes to fit your needs, goals, and personal style.

5. Recovery may not be "quick"

Even though ankle replacement, bunion and hammer toe surgeries usually only take a few hours to complete, recovery from these surgeries can take several months.1,2,6 You’ll want to follow your doctor's recommendations fully throughout the recovery process. You may be advised to work with a physical therapist, especially if you’ve had a total ankle replacement, to progress your range of motion, strength, and function.2,4,6

No matter what your recovery journey is like, your medical team can be consulted every step of the way (no pun intended). Don’t hesitate to ask them your questions and concerns, and remember to be patient with yourself as you heal as well.

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  1. Hammertoes (n.d.). Kaiser Permanente. https://thrive.kaiserpermanente.org/care-near-you/northern-california/santarosa/departments/foot-ankle-surgery/foot-and-ankle-surgery/hammertoes/
  2. Healthwise Staff (2019, Jun 26). Bunionectomy: What to Expect at Home – Your Recovery. MyHealth.Alberta.Ca. https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=zu2044
  3. Ankle Replacement Surgery (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/treatment-tests-and-therapies/ankle-replacement-surgery
  4. Fischer, S. (2019, Feb). Bunion Surgery. OrthoInfo. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/treatment/bunion-surgery/
  5. Carl, TJ and Barrett, SL (2008). Computerized analysis of plantar pressure variation in flip-flops, athletic shoes, and bare feet. J Am Podiatr Med Assoc. 98(5):374-378. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18820040/
  6. Healthwise Staff (2019, Jun 26). Total Ankle Replacement: What to Expect at Home. MyHealth.Alberta.Ca. https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Health/aftercareinformation/pages/conditions.aspx?hwid=acd5782

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