“Normal” Recovery Times For Knee Arthroscopy

Dr David Colvin workers compensation

08/04/2019 Dr. David Colvin, trained in orthopaedic surgery in Perth. David's specialty is knee and shoulder surgery and sports injuries.

Something I  hear commonly in the workers’ compensation environment is “my boss said he had the same operation and was back at work after a week”. Apart from being highly inflammatory, the statement in itself is probably not true. “Knee arthroscopy” is a very generic term for any operation that is done with keyhole cuts on the knee. Under this heading, there are a wide range of procedures that can be done arthroscopically and also a wide number of conditions that can be treated.

It is true that most knee arthroscopy is performed for a torn meniscus or torn cartilage in the knee. However the recovery timelines are often dictated by what else is happening in the rest of the knee. A twenty year old footballer with a torn cartilage and an otherwise normal knee may be back on track within a couple of weeks. Even this patient will be getting niggling symptoms for months that he “plays through”.
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The timelines for recovery are very dependent on the amount of “wear and tear” or osteoarthritis in the knee. In this respect, no two knees are the same. Almost everybody over the age of forty (and many younger people) have some degree of wear and tear in the knee. Arthroscopic surgery cannot reverse this wear, and is unlikely to influence the pain that you experience from that wear. In the setting of significant wear, the recovery may extend out over months and indeed there is no guarantee of a full recovery at all. Arthroscopy may be part of the overall management plan to try and reduce the arthritic symptoms by addressing the pain coming from the torn cartilage. On this basis, it is not reasonable to compare one persons arthroscopy to another.
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There are other reversible factors that do impact upon the timelines for recovery including the amount of bleeding and swelling in the knee.  Minor postoperative complications such as deep vein thrombosis or inflammation of the joint (synovitis) will prolong recovery.  Muscle wasting that occurs after surgery can cause secondary problems such as kneecap pain or weakness and giving way.  This may be correctable with rehabilitation but might take weeks or months.  So the answer to what is “normal” recovery for a knee arthroscopy is that there is a wide range of recovery timeframes depending on the underlying problem.  It is not necessarily possible to accurately predict before surgery what the timelines might be. 

In general terms, you should be pottering about the house for the first few days after an arthroscopy, then starting some walking for exercise until your stitches come out at one week.  At that stage it is possible to start in the pool doing some hydrotherapy and progress on to an exercise bike and low impact gym equipment.  A physiotherapist can help with a strengthening program although it is not always necessary.  By six weeks you should be doing light impact activity and by three months, you should be approaching full recovery.  Occasionally people will see improvements for up to six months. 

Remember, your knee is your knee, and it is almost certainly not exactly the same as the boss’ knee. 

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