Post-operative Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is crucial to recovery from orthopedic surgery, such as operations on the hip, knee, shoulder, wrist, hand, neck, foot, ankle and spine.

Unlike some operations, the job isn’t done when the patient leaves the operating room. For patients, that’s when the work begins. Sometimes therapy will begin hours after an operation, and usually within the first few days.

Put simply, a patient’s ability to return to health and regain motion after surgery depends on physical therapy. A therapist will design an exercise program tailored specifically to a patient’s needs and abilities, and then work with the patient on the road back to health.

Therapy focuses on maintaining comfort, minimizing the chance of infection, maintaining the patient’s self esteem and offering support for patients and their families. Depending on the type of operation, therapy may also help prevent many complications associated with bed rest following surgery including bedsores, deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism.

Many physical therapists consciously divide rehabilitation into distinct phases. The first comes immediately after surgery when the injury may be immobilized while pain and swelling subside.

Then comes a series of progressively challenging exercises to restore stability, strength and range of motion. The final goal is to return a patient to pre-injury activity level.

Depending on the type of surgery, therapy may include:

  • Exercises to strengthen muscles
  • Flexibility exercises to develop and extend a range of motion, which will keep joints mobile
  • Posture, balance and coordination training
  • Gait analysis and training
  • Strategies for pain reduction
  • Massage
  • Self-care training for eating, bathing, dressing and using the bathroom during recovery.
  • Teaching patients exercise programs they can do independently at home


Since not two patients or conditions are exactly alike, therapists must be in close contact with the orthopedic surgeon or other attending physicians, carefully coordinating a patient’s care. The goal is to fully understand the patient’s particular needs, and help guide them to recovery.

A physical therapist is a patient’s partner in regaining health and abilities, helping with their literal and figurative first steps after surgery, and on the journey ahead. Often a therapist will have to caution a patient about doing too much too soon. A therapy program is carefully calibrated to build on itself.

It’s important to remember that physical therapy after surgery is a process, not a one-time event. Regaining ability, strength and flexibility will take time, patience and effort.

It can be a long road, but a physical therapist will remain throughout the journey, offering feedback, adjusting the therapy as necessary and providing encouragement every step of the way.