Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only. This is not a substitute for a medical appointment. Please refer to your physician before starting any exercise program.
Knee Extension After Surgery
Over 1.5% of the American population is currently living with a total knee replacement. Both meniscus and total knee surgeries, also known as arthroplasty, have been increasing over time, putting knee surgery in the top ten list of most common surgeries.
After knee surgery of any type, there can be quite a bit of stiffness, making it difficult to bend or straighten the leg. The most important motion, extension (or straightening of the leg), can be the hardest to regain and takes the most work and attention. Take the guessing out of what to do as we have tips to help.
Use a Walker Until You Can Walk Without a Limp
Don’t ditch the walker or cane until you’re capable of walking without a limp. Both items provide stability by redistributing weight while you’re healing. Limping from a painful weight on the joint means the knee remains bent, increasing tightness, muscle spasms, and potentially resulting in long-term knee flexion. Continue using the walker until your normal gait returns. If you get off the assitive device too soon it can actually do more harm than good for the brand new surgery you just suffered through. Going into surgery without a walker? Our preferred walker is the Drive Medical Deluxe Two Button Folding Walker. And Yes, eveveryone uses a walker after surgery. Get over it, accept it, and work hard to get knee extension so you can leave the walker behind.
Sleep with your Knee Straight
Nighttime presents the most challenging opportunity to resist knee flexion. Sleeping with a straight knee will hurt but is essential for regaining full extension. Don’t give in to the flex! Those first several nights you will be sleeping on your back. It’s important to ensure that your leg is elevated, but not from behind the knee. We’re aiming for zero-degree rotation or a fully extended knee, otherwise, you may not be able to achieve it later in recovery.
The first two weeks will be the worst. Take your pain medications right before bed, eat your Wheaties, ice it during the day, and know that it will get easier with time.
Eventually, you’ll progress to sleeping on your side as well, in which case a simple pillow between the legs will suffice, but we recommend using this Zero Degree Knee Pillow to streamline the night recovery process—especially in the earliest stages. It’s lightweight and holds your leg in the proper position for healing post-surgery.
Move Often to Promote Healing
As they say, “Motion is lotion,” and helps bring blood to the joint, promoting healing. It’s critical to get your new knee moving as soon as you can because the first two weeks of motion-range recovery determine how much you’ll regain overall. The more you move it, the sooner it will start to feel better, looser, and reduce muscle spasms.
To build strength and keep the movement going without extra strain, we suggest one of these Recumbent Ellipticals for exercising pain-free. The slightly reclined and adjustable seat allows for gradual adjustments as you acquire more mobility, and it spreads the weight out, so you aren’t grinding your full body weight down into your joints. Using an elliptical bike to exercise will increase the range of motion in a more natural way while gaining strength and promoting blood flow at the same time. All of these benefits will help you feel better faster and keep off some of the weight at a time when it’s difficult to exercise.
Warm Up Prior to Stretching
Warming up—literally raising the core body temperature—before stretching is super important. The main reason is it prevents further or new injury and allows the muscles, tendons and ligaments to stretch further. A true warmup should consist of joint rotations and aerobic activity that will get the blood flowing. In addition to avoiding injury, warming up will enhance performance by making you more body-aware, lubricating your joints, and promoting elasticity which allows all of the soft tissue to stretch further. Try to warm up 5 minutes at a minumum but anyone longer is a bonus and it’s best to use the muscles that you are about to stretch during your warm up. This is another reason why we love the recumbent elliptical.
Make it a Focus Immediately After Surgery
As we mentioned before, efforts in the first two weeks are vital to the rest of recovery. It’s important to work on extension multiple times a day during this period. Engaging in a variety of different exercises will help even more. The sooner you achieve knee extension the easier your recovery will be.
Here are a couple of easy exercises from one of our favorite resources:
- Prone knee extension hangs use gravity to pull your muscles into extension. Lie face-down on a table or bed with your legs hanging over a few inches above the knees. Be careful not to bend in the hips so you get a full leg stretch!
- Push/pull knee extension stretches use a stretching strap wrapped around a flexed foot to pull the leg into full extension. Make sure your legs are pointing directly in front of you and you’re squeezing your thigh to push the knee down into the floor. Hold for at least ten seconds at a time!
We know it’s going to be rough for a bit, but these tips should help ease the pain faster and set you on course to regain your full range of motion. The sooner the knee gets straight the sooner you get back to normal.