Recovering from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) knee surgery can take up to a year.
After knee surgery, the wound will be closed with stitches or surgical clips. If the stitches are dissolvable, they should disappear after about 3 weeks.
If your stitches are not dissolvable, they'll need to be removed by a healthcare professional. Your surgeon will advise you about this.
They'll also tell you how to care for your wound. Washing it with mild soap and warm water is usually all that's required.
Your knee will be bandaged and you may also be given a Cryo/Cuff to wear. This is a waterproof bandage that contains iced water to help reduce swelling. You may also be given painkilling medicine.
You may have painful bruising, swelling and redness down the front of your shin and ankle, caused by the fluid inside your knee joint (synovial fluid and blood) leaking down your shin.
These symptoms are temporary and should start to improve after about 1 week.
Your surgeon or physiotherapist can advise you about a structured rehabilitation programme. It's very important that you follow the programme, so your recovery is as successful as possible.
You'll be given exercises you can start in hospital after your surgery and continue when you get home.
The exercises will include movements to bend, straighten and raise your leg. Ask if you're unsure about how to do any of the exercises.
You'll also be given crutches to help you move around. You may need to use them for about 2 weeks, but you should only put as much weight on your injured leg as you feel comfortable with.
Weeks 1 to 2 of your recovery
For 1 to 2 weeks, your knee is likely to be swollen and stiff, and you may need to take painkillers.
Your surgeon or GP will advise about the type of pain relief that's best for you. You'll be advised to raise your leg as much as possible – for example, by putting pillows under your heel when you're lying in bed.
You may be given a Cryo/Cuff to take home with you to help ease the pain and swelling. Ask your surgeon or physiotherapist how often you should use the Cryo/Cuff.
If you don't have a Cryo/Cuff, you could place a pack of frozen peas wrapped in a towel on your injured knee.
Weeks 2 to 6 of your recovery
Once the pain and swelling have settled, you may be advised to increase or change your exercises. Your physiotherapist will advise you about what exercises to do.
The exercises will help you to:
- fully extend and bend your knee
- strengthen your leg muscles
- improve your balance
- begin to walk properly
After 2 to 3 weeks, you should be able to walk without crutches.
As well as specific exercises, activities that do not put much weight on your knee may also be recommended, such as swimming for fitness and cycling. Visit the website of charity Cycling UK for advice.
Weeks 6 to 24 of your recovery
You should gradually be able to return to your normal level of activity between 6 weeks and 6 months after your knee operation.
You'll be encouraged to continue with activities such as cycling and swimming but should avoid sports that involve a lot of twisting, jumping or turning.
This is because you need to allow enough time for the grafted tissue to anchor itself in place inside your knee.
After 6 months
After 6 months, you may be able to return to playing sport.
Some people may need to take more time before feeling confident enough to play sports again, and elite athletes may need longer to return to their previous level of performance.
Returning to work
How quickly you can return to work after having knee surgery will depend on what your job involves.
If you work in an office, you may be able to return to work after 2 to 3 weeks.
If you do any form of manual labour, it could be up to 3 months before you can return to work, depending on your work activities.
Your GP can advise you on when you can drive again. This will usually be after 3 to 4 weeks, or whenever you can comfortably put weight on your foot.
Page last reviewed: 15 September 2021
Next review due: 15 September 2024