Knee surgery can help ease pain from an injury, such as torn cartilage or a torn ligament. Surgery can also treat other conditions in the joint, such as osteoarthritis.

This article explores different types of knee surgery. It also looks at the recovery timeline for each and how people can help encourage healing.

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Below, we describe various types of knee surgery and when they might be necessary:

Total knee replacement

This is the most common type of knee surgery for arthritis, and it involves replacing the whole joint. Doctors recommend knee replacement surgery as a last resort, often when:

  • The damage from arthritis interferes with everyday life.
  • Repair techniques have not worked.
  • Other treatments are not relieving the associated pain.

More than 600,000 of these surgeries take place in the United States every year. During the procedure, a surgeon removes the knee joint and replaces it with one made of metal, ceramic, or plastic.

Arthroscopy

Arthroscopy is a minimally invasive surgery. It involves making a small cut in the skin over the knee, inserting a light, and using tiny instruments to, for example:

  • remove or repair torn menisci, part of the cartilage in the knee joint
  • repair a torn cruciate ligament inside the knee
  • trim torn pieces of joint cartilage
  • remove loose bodies, small fragments of cartilage or bone that are floating within the knee
  • remove inflamed joint lining

Osteotomy

This involves cutting, reshaping, and repositioning the bones to take some weight off of a damaged part of the knee. A surgeon may perform this, for example, to help correct a broken bone that has not healed properly.

Recovery stages and times for different types of knee surgery vary.

Total knee replacement

After a total knee replacement, most people need to stay in the hospital for 1–4 days, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) reports. During this time, a person takes medication to manage pain and prevent blood clots. Members of the medical team help get the person up and moving.

A person may also use a continuous passive motion, or CPM, machine, which slowly moves the knee while the person is in bed. Some doctors believe that this decreases swelling by elevating the leg and improves blood circulation by moving it.

The AAOS says that it may take a few days to several months before a person can return to work. The timing depends on the type of job and other factors that may affect the person’s recovery.

Before driving, a person needs to wait until they can sit in the car comfortably and their reflexes are working correctly. Most people are able to drive after they stop taking medication that can make them drowsy. A doctor will advise about when driving is safe.

Also, a person may need help around the house for several weeks after a total knee replacement. Most people can resume sexual activity after a few weeks.

Overall, many people return to their usual activities 3–6 weeks after a total knee replacement, according to the AAOS.

Arthroscopy

The recovery timeline for someone who has undergone arthroscopy depends on what the procedure involved and individual factors, such as the person’s age and overall health.

Many people leave the hospital the same day or the next morning. However, as the United Kingdom’s National Health Service (NHS) notes, it may take a few days to several months before the person feels that their life is back to normal.

Some people need to use crutches, pain medication, or both in the first few days after the surgery. It is also best to keep the leg elevated as much as possible during this time, according to the NHS.

A doctor will let the person know when they can return to activities such as driving, sports, and heavy lifting.

Osteotomy

A person who has undergone osteotomy stays in the hospital for 1–2 days afterward, the AAOS notes. A medical team provides pain relief during this time.

The person will probably need crutches for several weeks, and the doctor may put the knee in a brace or cast while the bone heals.

A person can usually resume their regular activities about 3–6 months after the surgery, the AAOS reports.

For anyone who has had knee surgery, it is essential to keep the wound as dry as possible until it has thoroughly healed. Covering the wound with a bandage will also help prevent irritation from support stockings and other clothing.

Having a healthful, balanced diet helps encourage healing, though a person may have a poor appetite for the first few days after their surgery.

The AAOS recommends exercising in the first few weeks after the operation. A physical therapist may recommend specific exercises that help restore movement and build strength in the knee, and a person may need to do these several times a day.

Otherwise, the best approach to aftercare largely depends on the type of surgery that a person has had.

Anyone who has undergone arthroscopy should exercise regularly. A doctor or physical therapist usually recommends 20–30 minutes of exercise two or three times a day and walking for 30 minutes two or three times a day during early recovery.

A physical therapist may design a personalized activity program. This may involve gradually increasing the amount of walking and a timetable for resuming everyday activities, such as climbing stairs. They will also recommend rehabilitation exercises.

Several weeks after a total knee replacement surgery, a doctor removes any stitches or staples. They also assess how well the wound has healed. A physical therapist gives the person a tailored exercise and activity plan.

A person recovering from arthroscopy sees the doctor a few days after the procedure. The doctor reviews the surgical findings, and a physical therapist designs a postoperative treatment program.

For someone recovering from osteotomy, a doctor may take X-rays to check the healing process. They also describe when it will be safe to put weight on the leg again and when the rehabilitation process can begin.

A total knee replacement often improves the function of the joint, though many people do not regain a full range of motion, the AAOS notes. It also reports that more than 90% of total knee replacement prostheses are still functioning 15 years after they were inserted.

Some people need to switch from high-impact to low-impact exercises after surgery or make other adjustments to their routines.

Osteotomy tends to relieve pain and delay the progression of arthritis in the knee. A person may require a total knee replacement later on, but osteotomy can help younger people with arthritis stay active for many years before that.

Overall, recovery depends on factors and expectations specific to each person. The Arthritis Foundation reports that surgery can improve pain levels, but knee pain caused by arthritis is unlikely to ease completely after surgery.

The timing of recovery from knee surgery depends on the type of procedure and factors such as the person’s age, overall health, and circumstances such as occupation. A person may be able to return to work within a few weeks, but it may take longer before they can lift anything heavy.

After any knee surgery, it is essential to follow the advice of the doctor and physical therapist. This gives a person the best chance at a full recovery.