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What to Expect After Joint Replacement Surgery

If you’re preparing for joint replacement surgery, you may be wondering what to expect afterward. Here are a few things you can expect in the days and weeks after surgery.

Have you had a joint replaced? Are you planning on having a joint replaced in the future? 

If so, you're certainly not alone. According to an article published in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, over 1 million hip and knee replacements are performed every year and about 2 percent of the American population has already had a joint replaced.1 This number is expected to rise over the coming years, thanks to the aging baby boomer population. 

Of course, seniors aren’t the only ones who undergo joint replacement surgery. People of all ages undergo this common procedure, usually because of chronic joint inflammation, damage, pain, and dysfunction caused by conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, and so forth. 

If conservative measures haven't helped relieve your joint pain, you and your doctor may decide a joint replacement surgery is right for you. If so, you'll want to know what to expect after the procedure, since this will help prepare you for a better recovery and help ensure that things go as smoothly as possible. 

Are you taking control of your recovery?

 Know what you’ll need ahead of your joint replacement surgery.

Five things to expect after joint replacement surgery

1. You'll be moving ASAP.

Hip and knee replacements (called total hip arthroplasty and total knee arthroplasty, respectively) are the most common types of joint replacement surgery. Most joint replacement surgeons want their patients up and moving as soon as possible after they leave the operating table. This early mobility is essential for improving your post-op success and reducing the risk of complications like blood clots and excessive scarring. 

Expect a physical therapist (PT) to visit you once or twice on the day of your surgery. He or she will help you go for a walk and go up and down stairs, if appropriate. If you need an assistive device like a cane, crutches, or a walker, your PT will teach you how to use it. 

While not as common anymore, some surgeons prescribe a device called a continuous passive motion (CPM) machine for people recovering from certain types of joint replacement. If your surgeon wants you to use a CPM, your PT will adjust it to fit you and teach you and your loved ones how to use it. 

Your PT may also teach you breathing exercises or give you a special device like an incentive spirometer. This ensures you're taking deep breaths and getting your body all the oxygen it needs. Proper breathing helps with healing and pain management, and reduces your risk of complications such as respiratory infections. 

Additionally, you may have special precautions or weight bearing limitations—certain ways your surgeon wants you to move (or not move) in order to protect the healing joint. These restrictions typically last 6 to 8 weeks and some restrictions may be permanent. If you have any restrictions, your PT will teach you what they are and how to follow them.

2. You'll be given specific exercises for each stage of your rehabilitation.

In addition to walking as soon as possible after your surgery, your surgeon and/or PT will give you specific exercises as part of a rehabilitation exercise program. Depending on your overall health and how your surgery went, you may be able to do these exercises on your own at home, during outpatient visits with a physical therapist, or in a short-term inpatient rehabilitation setting. 

These exercises will change over time. For instance, within the first several days after your surgery, exercises will focus on reducing swelling, controlling pain, healing tissues, and improving range of motion. The next 1 to 2 months will feature exercises to improve your strength, balance, and joint mobility.

After about 3 months (depending on your personal health and situation), you should be able to tolerate most low-impact activities with full range of motion.

Common Recovery Exercises After Hip and Knee Replacements

3. You'll probably have some pain—but you can take steps to control it.

Advances in modern medical technology and orthopedic medicine have made joint replacements more effective than ever before. But it's normal to experience some post-operative pain, especially while doing exercises that help you regain mobility.

To stay on top of your pain, be sure to take all your medications as prescribed, take pain medication before you do your exercises or go to your physical therapy appointments, and stay active. You can also apply ice to the healing joint for up to 20 minutes at a time or as recommended by your surgeon. 

Additionally, adopting a healthy diet that promotes anti-inflammation can help manage healing and pain. Your surgeon may suggest that you avoid sugar and heavily refined foods, and eat plenty of healthy fats, veggies and fruits, and quality protein. 

4. You'll be given detailed instructions from your surgeon on what to look out for.

It's important to stay active during your recovery phase, but it's also important not to push yourself to the point of falling or being unsafe (such as trying to "jump" back into high intensity exercises too soon...no pun intended). 

It's also important that you speak with your surgeon right away if you notice any signs or symptoms of complications, such as an infection. Your surgeon will let you know the kinds of things to look out for, including swelling, redness, drainage from the healing incision, or fever.

5. Eventually, most patients feel better.

It’s vital you understand that your body is uniquely made, unlike anyone else on earth. You will have your own outcome to surgical procedures, medications and their side effects, healing times, and results. Your experience is going to be different from your neighbor's experience. This is so important to keep in mind, before, during, and after surgery and recovery.

Because everyone is different, the recovery process may take longer than you expected. Or it may be quicker. It’s important to keep a positive attitude and have realistic expectations. Discuss your concerns and victories with your doctor and be sure to follow his or her instructions for care after surgery. This is a key factor in your recovery.

There are risks with any surgery, no matter how minor the operation. 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. To help avoid these complications, surgeons may prescribe antibiotics and blood thinners before and after surgery. Be sure to discuss these and other risks with your surgeon.

That said, the majority of people who undergo joint replacement surgery eventually have far less pain and far better mobility than they did before the surgery.

By the year 2030, everyone from the baby boomer generation will be aged 65 and older, according to the United States Census Bureau.3 And, while joint replacement surgeries are performed on people of all ages, older adults are most commonly the recipients. This means a growing number of people can expect to undergo knee or hip replacements in their lifetime. 

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—so you can begin your quest for a healthy, active, enjoyable, and productive lifestyle.

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  1. Kremers, Hilal M., et al. (2015). Prevalence of Total Hip and Knee Replacement in the United States. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery AM. 97: 1386-97. http://dx.doi.org/10.2106/JBJS.N.01141
  2. Total Knee Replacement (2019). American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons. https://hipknee.aahks.org/total-knee-replacement/
  3. Older People Projected to Outnumber Children for First Time in U.S. History (2018, Mar 14). United States Census Bureau. https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2018/cb18-41-population-projections.html

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