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Common Joint Replacement Questions - After Surgery

You’ve had a total joint replacement…Now What?

Shannan Hardy MSN, APRN

You have had your surgery, you have undergone rehabilitation and you’re back on your feet. When and how will your life begin to resemble your pre-surgical life? You will soon be able to begin to resume many activities that were too painful before surgery. Recovery from total hip replacements and total knee replacements is different in several ways. Hip replacement patients recover more quickly than knee patients. This includes the length and type of rehabilitation, how quickly you will return to your desired level of functioning and the activities that are in the realm of possibility for you in the years after your replacement.

The first few weeks or months can be frustrating and uncomfortable, with the reality of just having had surgery. This is especially true if you have preconceived notions of how fast you should be independent that might not be true. Continue to follow the directions of your surgeon and your therapists. This stage is time limited and the more effort you put into your immediate recovery, the more you will get out of it. If a single joint is replaced you probably will be done with a walker, crutches or cane by a month give or take after your surgery.

During the first year, you should steadily regain strength and flexibility in your total joint. If you adhere to your exercise program and stay active, your artificial hip or knee will show steady and ongoing improvement. Just as every person is different, every recovery is different. Don’t compare yourself to your spouse, your friend or a co-worker that had a similar surgery. It’s important to have realistic expectations about your new total joint. You shouldn’t expect your total joint to function exactly the same as it did earlier in life, before you had arthritis. They are good joints, not normal joints. For example, knees may not bend as much as original knees and it may not be as comfortable to kneel. Hips may not be quite as flexible as they once were or be able to withstand extremes of rotation.

Some experts say that high impact activities such as running, jogging, court sports, and contact sports should be avoided. Most surgeons say that what a patient can do after surgery is directly related to their level of functioning prior to surgery, their exercise or sports history and how vigorously the patients participate in rehabilitation. Realistic activities following total knee replacement include unlimited walking and gym exercising, swimming, golf, hiking, biking, ballroom dancing, and other low-impact sports. However patients who work hard with physical therapy, especially on muscle strengthening and mobility, can ski, skate, play hockey, do extreme yoga and play doubles and even singles tennis!

The goal of a total joint replacement is to relieve pain and increase mobility thereby improving safety, lifestyle and independence. Successful patients are compliant, have a strong desire to continue to lead an active life and will make short term sacrifices for long term gain. Please remember, it takes at least a year for your body to completely heal and rehabilitate from a total joint! Occasional discomfort, clicks, pops, stiffness and swelling can continue for a time after surgery. You will have more good days than bad days, as time goes on. If you have questions regarding your joint replacement or are thinking about having a joint replacement but are concerned about activity afterwards, please don’t hesitate to ask your surgeon or the staff.

Commonly asked questions about total joint recovery

Q: How long do I have to wait to drive?

A: If your left hip or knee was replaced and you have an automatic transmission, you may be able to begin driving in 1-2 weeks or so, provided you are no longer taking narcotic pain medication. If your right hip or knee was replaced, avoid driving for at least 3 weeks. Remember that your reflexes may not be as sharp as before your surgery.

Q: When can I have sex after total joint surgery?

A: Sexual activity can be safely resumed approximately 2 - 4 weeks after surgery. Some caution and creativity is recommended.

Q: How soon can I fly after surgery?

A: As soon as you are comfortable with sitting down, you can fly. Usually, 1 -2 weeks is the depending on your mobility. You will be on a blood thinner for 3 weeks after surgery. During flying or driving on long trips, exercise your calf muscles and ankles frequently. Also, get out of the seat and walk the aisle of the airplane, and stop to walk around your car every hour to avoid the possibility of blood clots. Take the blood-thinners prescribed after surgery to reduce the risk of blood clots and wear your white anti-embolism stockings. If you can take aspirin, consider taking 325mg daily if traveling long distances by car or airline for the first 3 months after your total joint.