Recovering from Joint Replacement Surgery: What to Expect

Length of stay at the hospital varies from patient to patient.

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If you’re preparing for hip or knee replacement, you likely have a lot of questions about what to expect after the surgery. Recovering from joint replacement surgery varies for every patient, but there are a few things you can likely anticipate.

“It really is an individualized plan of care,” says Ann Marie Moynihan, RN, director of nursing at NYU Langone Health. “Ideally, you'll have less pain. You'll want to move around more [and] go back to the activities of daily living that you had done before.”

Recovering from Joint Replacement in the Hospital

One of your biggest questions may be how long you’ll need to stay in the hospital following your surgery. In general, most people will need to stay in the hospital for two or three days after their surgery, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. However, this can vary widely.

One of the determining factors of your hospital stay is your risk of infections and other complications. If you have complications from the surgery, your stay may be longer. Being in optimal health prior to joint replacement surgery typically improves surgical outcomes. Being overweight or having diabetes that's not well managed can increase the risk of post-surgery infections.

“The best way to determine how long you'll be in the hospital is really to have a conversation with your surgeon prior to surgery,” says Moynihan.

Additionally, your providers will make sure you are able to perform basic movements before you can go home. For example, you should be able to move on and off the toilet without help, and walk with crutches, to name a couple.

Pain Medications

As with any surgery, you can anticipate some amount of pain while recovering from joint replacement. “We aid hip and knee replacement patients' recovery by providing them with typically two or three different medicines,” says William Macaulay, MD, orthopedic surgeon at NYU Langone Health.

You may be worried about the possibility of receiving opioids, but your surgical team may go in another direction. “Very often these days, hip replacement patients don't require any narcotic medication at all,” says Dr. Macaulay. Talk to your surgical team beforehand if you’re concerned about opioid use.

Physical Rehabilitation

It is important to move and walk around while recovering from joint replacement surgery. This can help improve surgery results and recovery time, and it can also help prevent blood clots.

During recovery, you will work with a physical therapist to move and navigate daily life while you heal. They may teach you exercises to help with recovery, or help you use crutches or other walking aids. Additionally, physical therapists can help teach you safe behaviors to avoid injury after surgery. Learn more about what to expect at physical therapy here.

“A physical rehabilitation program often looks like increased exercises, with set goals over [a predetermined] amount of time,” says Moynihan. Together, the physical therapist and patient will “set goals and expectations for how long it will take to achieve these goals.”

Wound Care to Aid Recovering from Joint Replacement

Of course, you’ll have an incision from your surgery with bandaging. You may also have a drainage tube to collect blood that drains after your surgery. To aid your recovery, your surgeon will teach you how to change the dressing and care for the wound.

“Wound care and dressing management would be quite different from one surgeon to the other, so I would highly recommend that any patient go directly to their surgeon's clinical team for information regarding that care,” says Dr. Macaulay.

It’s normal to be nervous about surgery, or even for the recovery itself. However, your surgical team should be highly experienced in making sure you have the care you need to heal properly and have better mobility in the future.