What To Expect After Arthroscopic Knee Surgery

By Sonia Gulati. May 7th 2016


Arthroscopic knee surgery is the most common arthroscopic surgery. This form of knee surgery is minimally invasive and utilizes an arthroscope (a narrow tube with a tiny camera), which allows the surgeon to examine and treat damage that has occurred in the interior of the joint. Arthroscopic procedures can evaluate or treat many orthopedic conditions including torn floating cartilage, torn surface cartilage, ACL reconstruction and trimming damaged cartilage.

Due to its minimally invasive nature, arthroscopic knee surgery is associated with less scarring, decreased recovery time and an increased rate of surgical success when compared to open surgery. Although the recovery period from knee arthroscopy surgery varies between individuals, most can return to work within a week and resume a normal lifestyle within a few months.

What to Expect Immediately After the Surgery

Knee arthroscopy surgery lasts for approximately one hour after which you will be taken to the recovery room. You will be discharged from the hospital (usually within an hour or two) once you are comfortable, able to take fluids orally, can urinate and are able to walk on crutches. It is important to have someone with you to take you home.

Dressing Care

After the procedure, a bandage will be placed over the incisions to absorb some of the tissue drainage from the wounds. Your surgeon or nurse will tell you how and when to change these dressings. It is important that the bandage be kept dry after surgery. A sponge bath is usually recommended for the first few days after surgery. Once you are able to stand comfortably for 10-to-15 minutes, you may be able to shower with a plastic bag over your dressing. Soaking your knee in a bath is not advised until the incisions are fully healed.

Pain Medication and Swelling

Swelling around the knee is commonplace after arthroscopic knee surgery. It is important to keep your knee elevated above your heart when lying down for the initial three days post-surgery. Applying ice to the knee every 2-to-3 hours for twenty minutes will also help minimize any pain or throbbing. The swelling may last for 7-to-15 days, but should begin to subside 48 hours after the procedure. In order to help with the pain your surgeon may also prescribe pain medication, usually an analgesic with codeine. For mild pain or discomfort, over-the-counter NSAIDs like Tylenol or Advil may suffice.

Adjustments to Daily Life

Immediately after surgery, it is advised to limit your daily activities and to get plenty of rest. It is important to bend and extend your knee as much as you can tolerate in order to maintain your range of motion. Most patients will not be able to bear any weight on the afflicted knee and will need to use crutches. Your surgeon will assess and discuss with you, when it is safe to put weight on your leg. Your ability to drive is also limited after surgery. Your doctor will take a host of factors into consideration when deciding if you can drive. These include:

  • Level of pain
  • Whether you are still taking narcotic medication
  • Ability to control the knee
  • Nature of the procedure

Usually, patients are able to resume driving 1-to-3 weeks after the procedure. Overall, patients can usually return to work a week after the procedure and resume their daily activities within a couple of months. However, recovery time does vary between individuals and your surgeon will let you know when it is safe to return to work and increase your level of activity.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is an important component of your recovery from knee arthroscopy. It helps to regain control of the leg muscles, wean you from crutches, regain full knee motion, and will hasten your return to normal activity. Physical therapy should begin immediately following discharge from the hospital and will initially focus on helping you regain balance and coordination. Once your knee is strong enough to bear some weight, the intensity of your physical therapy will increase. At this point, your physical therapy goals will be to regain full knee motion and to continue to strengthen the knee. How quickly one progresses through the physical therapy regimen will depend on the underlying cause of the knee problem.

Possible Complications

Overall, arthroscopic knee surgery has minimal risk and is associated with few complications. The occurrence and severity of complications may vary according to the extent of injury to your knee. The following are some complications that may occur as a result of knee arthroscopic surgery.

  • Knee infection: There is a slight chance that some people will develop an infection in the knee. The infection can arise along the skin at the site of incision or within the joint itself. Patients who develop symptoms of infection, such as fever or chills, should seek additional medical care as soon as possible.
  • Blood clots: Blood clots are a rare complication after arthroscopic knee surgery. Symptoms associated with blood clots include numbness or tingling. Blood clots can be life threatening in some cases so it is important to contact your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms.
  • Pooling of blood in the knee: In rare cases, some patients may experience an accumulation of blood in the knee. If this happens, you should contact a doctor and they will drain the excess blood.
  • Nerve or ligament damage: During surgery, the nerves, ligaments or blood vessels within the knee can be injured. Though such complications are rare, they can cause permanent knee or lower leg numbness or movement difficulties. Symptoms associated with this sort of damage include unusual pain or tingling.


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