Care after surgery

After your surgery, there are things you need to know for your safety, recovery and comfort. You will receive instructions on your nutrition, medicines, exercise program, activity level, discharge equipment, follow-up appointment, and signs and symptoms to watch for.

Within this section is what to expect during your recovery, what your incision should look like after total knee replacement, a list of commonly asked questions, a list of questions to ask at your follow-up appointment, and information about pain relief, pain medicines, anti-inflammatory medicines, constipation and nutrition.

Ask your health care team if you have any questions. They want your recovery to be as smooth as possible.

Swelling after surgery is common. Reducing the amount of swelling may also reduce the amount of pain you have.

After surgery, it may take a while before you feel like your normal self. Recovery is different for each person.

What to Expect During Your Recovery

Before you leave the hospital

  • Talk with your surgeon about any precautions you may have after surgery.
  • Make sure you have a follow-up appointment scheduled with your surgeon 10 to 14 days after your surgery. 

Day you leave the hospital to 3 weeks after surgery

  • Your surgeon and physical therapist will talk with you about your home exercise program. Follow any instructions he or she gives you. This will have a big impact on your recovery.
  • Swelling after surgery is common. You may experience the most swelling 7 to 10 days after surgery.
    — Raise (elevate) your leg above the level of your heart by placing a pillow under your calf or ankle, not your knee.
    — Apply an ice pack or frozen gel pack as directed to help reduce swelling. Learn how to safely use cold therapy on page 51.
  • You will likely have a decrease in energy after surgery. Make sure to balance your activity with rest and continue with your home exercise program.
  • You will have some pain, discomfort and stiffness after surgery. It is important to create a pain plan to follow at home. Follow your surgeon’s instructions for pain medicine.
  • You may not feel like eating for the first few weeks after surgery. However, good nutrition is essential for your recovery. Try to resume eating healthful meals and snacks as soon as you are able. Make sure to drink six to eight 8-ounce glasses of liquids each day and include protein (meat, poultry, fish, beans, nuts and seeds) in your meals and snacks to help your body heal.
  • You may have constipation. This can be caused by taking pain medicine. Talk with your surgeon about ways to manage constipation.
  • You may feel some numbness in the skin around your incision. This should get better over time.
  • Timing of when to take medicines is important.
    • Do not wait for pain to get worse before taking medicine. Tablets or pills may take up to 30 minutes to begin working.
    • If you know your pain may get worse with activity, take your pain medicine before the activity.
  • You may also try non-medicine ways to relieve pain such as:
    • relaxing
    • listening to music
    • changing positions
    • elevate and use an ice pack or frozen gel pack as directed
    • walking
    • distractions (reading, watching TV, talking on the phone or with visitors)
    • aromatherapy.

You can talk with your health care provider about whether getting a temporary handicap parking permit is right for you.

Three to 6 weeks after surgery

  • Continue with your home exercise program. This will have a big impact on your recovery.
  • You may continue to have pain, discomfort, stiffness and swelling. This is common and should get better over time. Continue treating with elevation, ice pack or frozen gel pack, and other non-medicine ways to treat pain. (Most people are off pain medicine unless they were already taking pain medicine before surgery.)
    If you feel new pain or your pain gets worse, call your surgeon right away.
  • It is common to have trouble sleeping. It may be helpful to:
    • avoid sleeping or napping too much during the day
    • create a routine of going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
    • changing positions in bed
    • avoid drinking too many liquids right before going to bed
    • avoid stress before bed.
      Call your surgeon if you continue to have problems sleeping.
  • You may start walking without an assistive walking device when your surgeon says it is OK.
  • You may be able to do most activities around the house if your surgeon says it is OK.
  • You may be able to drive if:
    • you are not taking pain medicine
    • your surgeon says it is OK.
  • You may resume sexual activity when you are ready.
    • A firm mattress is recommended.
    • Be the passive partner for the first 6 weeks after surgery.
    • Follow your knee precautions if you have them.
    • Visit for more information about resuming sexual activity.
  • You may be able to return to work 4 to 6 weeks after surgery, depending on your type of work. You may want to consider going back to work gradually and starting with half days. Remember to take rest breaks and find time to elevate your leg and use an ice pack or frozen gel pack as directed.
  • Your surgeon may want you to schedule an appointment 6 weeks after surgery to have your incision checked and talk about physical activity.

Ten to 12 weeks after surgery

  • You should be able to resume most of your regular activities if your surgeon says it is OK. Some activities such as jogging, jumping and aerobics put a lot of strain or pressure on your new joint and should be avoided. Check with your surgeon before starting any new activities.

Three to 6 months after surgery

  • Ask your surgeon when it is OK to resume having routine dental appointments or any dental work done.
  • Your surgeon may want you to schedule an appointment 6 months after surgery to talk about your recovery and do an X-ray if needed.

6 months to 1 year after surgery

  • Most of your pain should be gone 1 year after surgery. However, you may still have some swelling in your lower leg and foot, and discomfort going up and down stairs or sitting in one position for too long. It is important to be physically active and maintain a healthy weight for the best recovery.
  • You may resume playing low-intensity activities such as volleyball or softball. Do not do high-intensity activities such as soccer, tennis or basketball.

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Knee Replacement, seventh edition, ortho-ah-90140
First Published: 10/01/2000
Last Reviewed: 02/01/2020