Recovery After Rheumatoid Arthritis Surgery: What to Expect

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on September 20, 2022
5 min read

Your recovery from surgery for rheumatoid arthritis (RA) goes can vary a lot depending on your type of procedure. Bouncing back from a total joint replacement for your hips or knee, for example, likely will take longer than after a day surgery on your wrist.

Here is a general picture of what you can expect following some common RA surgeries, which include:

  • Synovectomy, which removes the lining of your joint to prevent damage
  • Arthroplasty, when your doctor replaces your whole joint with a prosthesis made of plastic or other materials
  • Arthrodesis, or fusion surgery
  • Nerve release and decompression
  • Tendon repair
  • Arthroscopy, which removes damaged tissue with a thin, lighted tube

Remember, you play a big role in how well recovery goes. Follow your doctor’s instructions and stay as active as you can. Give yourself enough time to rest and heal. That might include taking off from work for a while.

Your procedure may take as little as an hour or two. You may go home the same day. Or you might stay in the hospital for a night or for several days.

Anesthesia. If you got medicine to put you to sleep during your surgery, it may take a while for the effects to wear off. It’s common for anesthesia to leave you feeling lightheaded and tired for up to 48 hours. If you go home during this time, have someone take you there and to stay with you during the first 24 hours.

Pain. You might hurt in the joint involved in the surgery. Your doctor may prescribe medication to ease your discomfort or recommend over-the-counter pain relievers. Ask your doctor what kind of pain to expect and for how long so you’ll know when something is not right.

Slings or splints. They support and keep your joint safe while it gets better. Or you might need crutches or other equipment to help you get around. You also may need compression bandages or pumps to improve blood flow.

Depending on which joint and which type of surgery you had, you might be up on your feet as soon as the next day. But even if you have to stay in bed for a while, your doctor likely will want you to start moving right away.

Physical therapy. You may start this soon to help your joint get flexible again. You may work with a physical therapist or follow their exercise plan. Physical therapy can start while you’re in the hospital. You then continue your rehabilitation at home or at an outpatient center.

The goal is to strengthen your muscles and to increase your range of motion. You might not be able to put much weight on the joint at first. This is especially true after a fusion surgery because it takes time for the bones to heal. Your physical therapist or occupational therapist may coach you on how to adapt your movements to carry on your daily activities more easily.

Medication. You likely will need to stay on your RA medicine even after your surgery. But your dose may drop. If you temporarily stopped taking your medication before your surgery, ask your doctor or rheumatologist when to resume.

You may leave the hospital or the surgery center on the same day as your operation. Or it may happen later. In either case, you should receive written directions on how to care for your wound and what activities you can and can’t do as you heal. Be sure to ask for phone numbers for any urgent questions.

Your doctor can tell you when it’ll be safe for you to drive again. They may also advise you on how much time, if any, you may need to take off from your job.

At home, you should be able to eat and drink the same way as you usually do. But you might need help cooking meals and cleaning up for a short period. Your doctor may have told you before the surgery about how much help you might require and if you should hire home health care.

You may also have to make short-term or permanent changes to your home, or how you do things there based on your surgery. These could include:

  • Adding or securing handrails on all stairs
  • Getting rid of or putting away things you could trip over, like electrical cords
  • Installing handlebars in the bathtub and/or shower
  • Putting a seat in the shower
  • Using a shower hose and sponge with a long handle
  • Getting items to make putting on clothes and shoes easier, like a dressing stick, sock aid, or long-handled shoe horn
  • Making the toilet seat higher
  • Making sure you have a stable chair with a sturdy seat cushion and back with arms on each side
  • Having firm pillows to elevate a part of your body, like your foot
  • Buying a reaching stick to pick up things

Some stitches dissolve on their own. If you have surgical staples, your doctor will take them out during your follow-up appointment, usually 1-2 weeks later. If you’re in a cast, it could take a few months before it comes off.

Joint replacement surgeries have been around for decades. Most people with RA report that their quality of life is much improved after such surgeries.

But it may take days, weeks, or months before you can do all the things you used to. Or it may take no time at all. Be patient and realistic. It’s OK to feel frustrated. Focus on what you can do to make yourself feel better and look for signs of improvement to stay motivated. Something as simple as talking to a friend may cheer you up. You can also share how you feel with someone you know who had that surgery as well. They can probably relate to what you’re going through.

Tell your doctor or another health care professional if something is troubling you physically, mentally, or emotionally. You can also ask them for any educational materials that might help guide you through your recovery.

Watch for these possible signs of surgery complications. Let your doctor know right away if you have:

  • More or severe pain by the surgery area
  • Tingling or you lose feeling in the part of the body that had surgery
  • Chills or fever
  • Redness, swelling, or bleeding at the surgery area and it’s getting worse
  • Discharge that smells bad or has a strange color coming out of the surgery area