Types of Knee Surgery and Recovery Timelines
How long does it take to recover from knee surgery? The answer depends on which type of knee surgery you have and how it’s performed. Recovery timelines vary widely, based on your particular procedure as well as your age and health. Still, estimates are available for several common knee procedures that can give you a general guideline to go by. This can help you decide whether to have a knee operation or can help you make plans for your post-surgical recovery period.
About 750,000 knee replacement operations are performed annually in the United States—a number projected to hit 3.5 million by 2030, due to the aging population. Orthopedic surgeons often perform these surgeries due to osteoarthritis, which worsens with age and can cause pain, stiffness and disability.
Several types of knee replacement surgeries can be performed, with differing recovery times. These include:
Traditional total knee replacement surgery recovery
Also referred to as open knee replacement surgery. With this procedure, the surgeon makes a large incision across your knee, cutting through tendons, ligaments and muscles to view and access your knee joint. The surgeon removes damaged surface areas in the joint and replaces them with metal, ceramic or plastic components.
Expect to spend about 3 to 6 days in the hospital for open knee surgery. You likely will walk with a walker for the first week or two, followed by crutches until you can walk unaided or with a cane, which usually occurs within 2 to 3 weeks. Being able to drive depends on when you can bend your leg and operate the gas and brake pedals; typically, this takes 4 to 6 weeks.
You can resume work in about 4 to 6 weeks, if your job is sedentary. If it’s more active, you may need up to three months before returning to work. In general, open knee surgery recovery time is three months, but it takes six months to a year for full recovery and function of the joint. (However, activities that involve running or jumping, such as jogging or basketball, can damage your new joint and should be avoided.)
Mini-incision knee replacement recovery
This type of surgery uses a smaller incision than with traditional open surgery, plus special instruments allowing your surgeon to approach the joint from the side, with minimal trauma to tissue, muscles and tendons, particularly the quadriceps tendon attached to the knee.
As a result, minimally invasive knee replacement recovery takes less time. Your hospital stay may be 1 to 2 days, and you may be able to return to work and normal activities within a couple of weeks. As with the open procedure, full return of range of motion involves several weeks of physical therapy.
Partial knee replacement recovery
With this procedure, only the arthritic parts of your knee are replaced, rather than the entire joint. You may return to work within a couple of weeks, continuing with physical therapy and home exercises for several weeks until you have full range of motion and use of your knee.
This surgery is used in early-stage osteoarthritis where damage exists on only one side of the knee joint. Surgeons cut and reshape part of the tibia (shin bone) or femur (thigh bone) to relieve knee joint pressure, correct misalignment, and potentially prolong the lifespan of your knee.
Expect to spend 1 to 2 days in the hospital and to be on crutches for several weeks. Full recovery may take 3 to 6 months.
Based on a review of total vs. minimally invasive knee replacement surgery techniques and results, a shorter hospital stay, infusion of pain killers into the knee joint, and early walking (assisted) can shorten recovery time for both procedures, although the patient shows earlier improvement in range of motion with the mini-incision approach vs. the open procedure.
Arthroscopic knee surgery involves a small incision to insert an arthroscope (which includes a small camera) into your knee joint, through which the doctor can see inside your knee joint space. The surgeon inserts special surgical instruments through a second small incision to make the necessary repairs. Because the incisions are so small, recovery times are much shorter than with open knee surgery. Most patients are discharged on the same day of their surgery.
However, arthroscopy may not be useful in treating some knee conditions, such as osteoarthritis. The number of arthroscopies has been declining in recent years, especially in those over 65.
Arthroscopy procedures are commonly done to repair damage to ligaments and cartilage. The most frequently performed knee arthroscopies, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, include:
- Repair or removal of torn meniscus (a type of knee cartilage)
- Reconstruction of torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL surgery)
- Removal of inflamed synovial (connective) tissue
- Trimming of damaged articular cartilage (another type of cartilage found in the knee)
- Removal of loose fragments of bone or cartilage
- Treatment of patella (kneecap) problems
- Treatment of sepsis (infection) of the knee
Recovery times for arthroscopic procedures vary widely, depending on the procedure and your physical condition. But in general, you can return to office work within a week and an active, normal lifestyle within 1 to 2 months.
As with any medical procedure, your physician is your best resource. If you have questions about knee surgery, your doctor can provide more personalized guidance about which procedure is best for you and what type of recovery time you can expect.