Why is physical therapy important after a joint replacement?

with advice from Shelly Cloughley, PT, DPT, CSCS

Joint replacement surgeries like knee and hip replacements have been on the rise in the new millennium. With many Baby Boomers approaching their 70s, it’s a trend that most likely will continue.

But while patients might think long and hard about what the surgery will entail and the expertise of their surgeon, they don’t often consider the role of physical therapy in their recovery.

A woman with dark hair and glasses leans on a pair of crutches in her home, in front of a table.

A patient’s decision to undergo a joint replacement is often a result of chronic arthritis or pain, as well as a loss of function and quality of life. Throughout the process of rehabilitation, patients are commonly frustrated about meeting their expectations of having the joint replacement. Patients aren’t usually prepared for the discomfort of the process of healing, and the challenges of restoring their full range of motion and building the necessary strength to return to a functional level that fits their lifestyles.

“At the beginning of the recovery period, there is swelling and pain that interferes with the ease of moving the joint, such as bending and straightening the knee or hip,” says Shelly Cloughley, a physical therapist and the clinical director at Progressive Physical Therapy, a Physiquality clinic in California. It’s critical to begin moving the joint immediately after surgery — even though one has pain, she points out — in order to prevent the formation of scar tissue, which can hinder the process of restoring the range of motion necessary to do everyday tasks.

A male physical therapist works with a male patient on a table at the physical therapy clinic to stretch his back and hips. A row of stationary bikes is behind them.

Physical therapy is important after a joint replacement. This will include the physical therapist providing treatment that decreases swelling, improves soft tissue mobility, and allows for a gradual progression of improving joint motion. Most patients aren’t able to regain their full range of motion without the assistance of a physical therapist. The other aspect of physical therapy is helping the patient learn to walk again with a normal stride, notes Shelly. If the gait after a total joint replacement isn’t addressed, this can cause problems in other parts of the body, including the back, hip, knee, ankle and foot.

Patients can expect that physical therapy after joint replacement will include a variety of exercises to regain strength in a way that duplicates how we move throughout our daily lives, like being able to go up and down stairs, transfer in and out of a chair or car, run errands in the community and return to recreational activities. According to Shelly, full recuperation typically takes three to four months of therapy. A physical therapist will educate you on how you can help yourself throughout the entire recovery period, so that you can reach your goals and meet your expectations of having the joint replacement.

Female physical therapist working on the hips and legs of a female patient as she lies on a table at a clinic underneath a poster illustrating muscular anatomy.

It can be hard to commit to physical therapy. You may struggle to do simple tasks like walking or sitting down, and you might be tired from the surgery and its recovery. Try to remember that if you skip your exercises at home, or your PT appointments, you may end up with as much pain and disability as before your surgery.

If you’re going through with a joint replacement surgery, commit to a full recovery by working with your physical therapist toward a stronger and healthier future. Your local Physiquality physical therapist is an excellent resource when recuperating from joint replacement. Use our therapist finder below to locate the professional nearest you.

Thank you to our contributors:

Shelly Cloughley, PT, DPT, CSCS, is a physical therapist and the clinical director at the Valencia office of Progressive Physical Therapy, a Physiquality member with four locations in Southern California. A certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, as well as a certified Pilates instructor, Shelly’s specialties include orthopedics and sport injuries, manual therapy, pain management, spine disorders and orthotic evaluations.


American Physical Therapy Association.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

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