If you suffer years of knee pain before considering joint replacement, you are bound to have some expectations for life after surgery. From getting out of pain to recovering lost abilities, achieving a better lifestyle is the main reason for having surgery in the first place.
All too often, joint replacement patients go into surgery with a distorted view of what comes afterward, according to Jan George, PT, DPT, OCS, a physical therapist at Indiana University Health Saxony Hospital.
Here are five false assumptions about knee replacement and the truth about what you can expect.
Myth #1: Assuming a new knee will make everything well again. For people who’ve been in pain for 10 to 15 years, replacing a knee is only a start. Prolonged pain causes most people to adopt an elaborate series of compensating movements around their pain and dysfunction. “If you’ve been limping on your left leg because your right knee is bad, you will very likely continue to limp after surgery because your body remembers that,” says George. “That’s what physical therapy is for.”
Part of your post-surgery physical therapy strengthens muscles around the knee. The rest is about correcting poor body mechanics for simple tasks like sitting in a chair or getting in and out of a car. Improving range of motion in other joints (like the hips and ankles) often helps create those movements in a way that’s healthier for the whole body.
Myth #2: Assuming your body will recover on its own. “Patients often underestimate the amount of work involved in recovery,” George says. The reality: exercise and physical therapy are part of a prescription. When you don’t follow the prescription, you can’t expect to achieve your desired outcome or reach your full potential. “People think they can skip a day and it won’t matter,” she says. “Your results are only limited by your motivation and the goals you set.”
Myth #3: Assuming you’ll never recover because you didn’t fully participate in physical therapy. If you blow off your physical therapy or an illness prevents you from participating, you can still recover some abilities. “There are always things that can be tweaked later to help you function better,” George says. If you feel limited by your range of motion, a good physical therapist can help you identify healthy substitutions and aids that facilitate your lifestyle. That could mean swapping out chairs that sit too low, elevating your toilets, using a cane or other simple changes in your environment.
Myth #4: Assuming your recovery from one joint replacement will be identical to a second replacement. Your age, condition and the length of decline in your joint function all have a bearing on your recovery. “If you have a replacement on the right knee and later have one on the left, the recoveries will be entirely different,” George says. From one side to the other, it may take more effort in physical therapy to correct bigger compensations.
Myth #5: Assuming you will always be limited after joint replacement. Motivated people who are willing to set high goals and work for them often surprise themselves. George recalls a knee-replacement patient in her mid-60s as an example. “Before I worked with her, she could not get up off the floor, squat or get on and off the toilet,” she says. “But because of her desire to push herself, she is now doing a swift trot and moving faster than she ever has—which is not something I would recommend for everyone, but it does show what is possible when you set your mind to it.”
If you’re curious about what joint replacement can do for your lifestyle, check out one of the many seminars near you or watch this video about what you can expect from total knee replacement surgery.