Knee Replacement and Stairs

If you or a loved one is considering knee replacement surgery, there’s a great deal to know about the process, from understanding the anatomy of the knee joint and the surgical procedures themselves, to rehabilitation and physical therapy afterward. Navigating stairs can prove to be a particular challenge following the surgery, but by learning about proper climbing techniques, assistive devices, and strategies to manage pain and swelling, you can regain mobility and confidence in your new knee.

Understanding Knee Replacement Surgery

Knee replacement surgery, also known as knee arthroplasty, is a surgical procedure performed to replace the damaged parts of the knee joint with artificial components. This surgery can help improve mobility, relieve pain, and enhance the overall quality of life for individuals suffering from chronic knee conditions. In this guide, we will discuss the different types of knee replacement surgery, the procedure itself, and the reasons why a person would need a knee replacement.

Types of Knee Replacement Surgery

  • Total Knee Replacement (TKR): In this procedure, the entire knee joint is replaced with an artificial prosthesis. This is the most common type of knee replacement surgery and is typically recommended for patients with advanced arthritis or significant joint damage.
  • Partial Knee Replacement (PKR): Also known as unicompartmental knee replacement, this procedure involves replacing only the damaged portion of the knee joint, preserving the healthy parts. It is an option for patients with arthritis or joint damage limited to one specific area of the knee.
  • Kneecap Replacement (Patellofemoral Arthroplasty): This procedure involves replacing the damaged kneecap (patella) and its corresponding joint surface. It is suitable for patients with arthritis or joint damage limited to the kneecap area.
  • Complex Knee Replacement: This procedure is reserved for patients with severe joint damage, deformity, or instability. It may involve the use of specialized implants or additional bone grafts to provide better stability and alignment.

The Knee Replacement Procedure

  1. Anesthesia: You will be administered general anesthesia or spinal/epidural anesthesia to ensure that you are comfortable and pain-free during the surgery.
  2. Incision: The surgeon will make an incision over the front of your knee to access the joint.
  3. Removing Damaged Bone and Cartilage: The damaged surfaces of your knee bones and cartilage will be removed and shaped to fit the artificial components.
  4. Implanting Prosthesis: The surgeon will attach the artificial components, which typically consist of metal and plastic materials, to the prepared surfaces of your knee bones.
  5. Closing the incision: The incision will be closed with sutures or staples, and a sterile dressing will be applied to protect the wound.

Reasons for Knee Replacement Surgery

  • Osteoarthritis: This wear-and-tear arthritis occurs due to the gradual breakdown of cartilage in the knee joint, leading to pain, stiffness, and reduced mobility. Knee replacement surgery is often recommended for individuals with severe osteoarthritis that has become unresponsive to conservative treatments.
  • Rheumatoid Arthritis: In this autoimmune condition, the joints are attacked by the body’s immune system, causing inflammation, pain, and joint damage. Knee replacement surgery may be necessary if the joint damage is extensive and not adequately managed with medications.
  • Traumatic Injuries: In some cases, knee injuries sustained in accidents, sports, or falls can lead to extensive joint damage or instability, necessitating a knee replacement.
  • Bone Disorders: Certain congenital or acquired bone disorders (e.g., avascular necrosis) can lead to joint damage, pain, and mobility issues that may require a knee replacement.

Understanding the types, procedure, and reasons for knee replacement surgery is crucial in making an informed decision about your treatment options. If you or a loved one is experiencing severe knee pain or limited mobility due to joint damage, consult your orthopedic surgeon to discuss whether a knee replacement surgery is the best course of action.

An illustration of a person's knee with a diagram showing the parts of the knee joint and a surgical tool used to repair it. PNG

Anatomy of the Knee Joint

Understanding the anatomy of the knee joint is vital for learning how it functions and how to address potential issues, such as knee replacement surgery and navigating stairs after the procedure. In this guide, we will explore the bones, cartilage, ligaments, and muscles involved in the knee joint.


  • The knee joint is a hinge joint that connects the two largest bones in the body, the femur (thigh bone), and the tibia (shin bone).
  • The patella (kneecap) is a small, triangular bone located at the front of the knee joint to protect it.


There are two types of cartilage in the knee joint:

  • Articular Cartilage: This smooth, slippery substance covers the ends of the femur and tibia, as well as the back of the patella, providing a cushioned surface for the bones to move on, reducing friction and absorbing shocks.
  • Meniscus: These two crescent-shaped pieces of fibrocartilage are situated between the femur and tibia, acting as shock absorbers and distributing the weight evenly across the knee joint.


The knee joint’s stability is maintained by four major ligaments that connect the bones:

  • Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL): This ligament runs diagonally in the middle of the knee, preventing the tibia from sliding out in front of the femur and providing rotational stability.
  • Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL): This ligament, located behind the ACL, prevents the tibia from sliding backward relative to the femur.
  • Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL): This ligament runs along the inner part of the knee joint, connecting the femur and tibia. It helps resist forces pushing the knee inward.
  • Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL): This ligament is located on the outer side of the knee joint, connecting the femur and the fibula (smaller bone on the outer side of tibia). It helps resist forces pushing the knee outward.


The main muscles that control the movement of the knee joint include:

  • Quadriceps: Located on the front of the thigh, this group of four muscles is responsible for extending the knee and straightening the leg. The quadriceps tendon connects the quadriceps muscle to the patella.
  • Hamstrings: Located on the rear of the thigh, this group of three muscles is responsible for flexing the knee and bending the leg. The hamstring tendons connect the hamstring muscles to the tibia and fibula.


Tendons are strong, fibrous cords that connect muscles to bones, transferring the forces applied by the muscles.

Now that you have a good understanding of the anatomy of the knee joint, you can better appreciate its complexity and the importance of maintaining its health. If you are considering or have undergone knee replacement surgery, this knowledge will help you better navigate rehabilitation and activities such as climbing stairs. Remember to consult your doctor or physical therapist for personalized recommendations on maintaining and improving your knee health.

Image showing the different components of the knee joint including bones, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and muscles. Each component is labeled and color-coded for easy identification and understanding. PNG

Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy after Knee Replacement

Rehabilitation and physical therapy are essential components of your recovery after a knee replacement surgery. These therapeutic activities aim to help you regain strength, balance, flexibility, and mobility in the affected knee. The following instructions will guide you through the phases of rehabilitation, emphasizing the importance of progressing at your own pace and under the supervision of medical professionals.

Phase 1: Early Post-Operative (Usually within the first week after surgery)

  1. Follow your surgeon’s specific post-operative care instructions, such as wound care, pain control, and medications.
  2. Begin some gentle exercises under the guidance of a physical therapist, who will help you move your knee safely and within your tolerance. Common early post-operative exercises include:
    • Ankle pumps: Move your foot up and down while lying on your back.
    • Quadriceps contractions: Tighten the muscles in your thigh while keeping your leg straight.
    • Heel slides: Slowly slide your heel toward your buttocks while bending your knee.
  3. Gradually increase your daily activity level, starting with short walks around your home and building up as tolerated.

Phase 2: Intermediate Rehabilitation (1 to 4 weeks post-surgery)

  1. Attend regular physical therapy sessions, where your physical therapist will develop a tailored exercise program to improve your knee mobility, strength, and functionality.
  2. Perform exercises consistently at home, as recommended by your therapist. Common intermediate exercises may include:
    • Leg raises: Lift your leg straight up while lying on your back.
    • Partial squats: Lower your body slowly, keeping your back straight and bending at the hips and knees.
    • Low-impact activities: Engage in activities, such as swimming or using a stationary bike, to increase knee strength and mobility without excessive stress on the joint.
  3. Start practicing going up and down the stairs, initially using handrails for support. Focus on proper technique, which includes placing your weight evenly on both legs and gradually increasing the weight you put on your new knee.

Phase 3: Advanced Rehabilitation (4 to 12 weeks post-surgery)

  1. Continue attending physical therapy sessions to work on advanced exercises and monitor progress.
  2. Incorporate a balance training program to improve proprioception and overall control. Exercises can include:
    • Single-leg stands: Stand on one leg for a set amount of time.
    • Heel-to-toe walking: Walk in a straight line, placing your heel directly in front of the toes of your opposite foot.
  3. Gradually increase the intensity and duration of your exercises and activities, which may include walking longer distances, hiking on uneven terrain, or participating in a low-impact aerobics class.
  4. Begin incorporating simple functional activities that replicate daily activities, such as:
    • Picking up items off the floor
    • Stepping on and off stools or low steps
    • Getting in and out of a car

The process of rehabilitation and physical therapy after a knee replacement surgery is crucial for maximum recovery. Working closely with your physical therapist to set goals, consistently perform exercises, and progress at your own pace will ensure a successful recovery and help you regain mobility, strength, and functionality in your knee. Remember, each individual’s recovery journey is different, so always follow your healthcare team’s advice tailored to your unique situation.

An image of a person practicing knee bends with a medical professional beside them. Suitable for use with a text on knee replacement rehabilitation and physical therapy.

Stair Climbing Technique

After a knee replacement surgery, it is essential to learn and use the proper stair climbing technique to avoid putting unnecessary strain on the new knee joint. This guide will help you understand the correct foot placement, body mechanics and general tips to safely and efficiently navigate stairs post-knee replacement.

Step 1: Gather the necessary equipment

Before attempting to climb stairs, ensure you have the appropriate equipment, such as a sturdy handrail and a suitable walking aid like a cane or crutch. These supports will provide necessary assistance in maintaining your balance.

Step 2: Approach the stairs

Stand at the bottom of the stairs with both your feet securely on the ground. Hold onto the handrail for support and ensure your walking aid is on the side opposite to your surgery leg.

Step 3: Proper foot placement

Place your non-surgery leg one step higher than the other without putting any weight on it. Ensure your foot is firmly on the step with your heel and toes touching the surface for maximum stability.

Step 4: Correct body mechanics

Shift your weight onto your non-surgery leg while holding onto the handrail. Use your upper body strength to help support your body weight as you start ascending the stairs.

Step 5: Move your surgery leg

Carefully lift your surgery leg to the same step where your non-surgery leg is placed. As you do so, ensure that your weight is supported by the non-surgery leg, walking aid, and handrail. Keep your movements slow and controlled to avoid losing balance or injuring your knee.

Step 6: Repeat the process

Once your surgery leg is securely on the step, repeat Steps 3 to 5 for each step until you reach the top of the stairs.

Step 7: Descending stairs

When descending stairs, reverse the process – lead with your surgery leg while keeping your non-surgery leg on the higher step. Support the weight of your body with your non-surgery leg, handrail, and walking aid as you lower your surgery leg down onto the next step.

Step 8: Take breaks

Climbing stairs can be tiring after a knee replacement surgery, so listen to your body and take breaks when needed. Avoid pushing yourself too hard and risking injury to your new joint.

Step 9: Follow your therapist’s guidance

Always follow the advice of your physical therapist regarding when to start climbing stairs and how to gradually increase the difficulty. Be sure to discuss any concerns you have about stair climbing and never attempt to climb stairs without your therapist’s approval.

Navigating stairs after a knee replacement surgery can be challenging, but by following these steps and practicing proper technique, you will improve your stair climbing skills and progress safely. Remember to always consult your physical therapist for guidance and never rush the process. With patience and perseverance, you’ll be safely climbing stairs in no time.

A diagram demonstrating the correct stair climbing technique with a un-surgery leg standing higher than a surgery leg on a step. The image shows hand gripping the handrail and a walking stick for support.

Using Assistive Devices

After undergoing a knee replacement surgery, your mobility and functionality will be limited. Climbing stairs may be a challenging task during the recovery period. Using assistive devices like canes, crutches, walkers, and handrails can help you maintain your balance, support your weight, and safely navigate stairs. In this guide, we’ll provide you with instructions on how to use these devices effectively when climbing stairs during your recovery period.


  1. Choosing the right cane: Make sure you are using a properly fitted cane with a comfortable grip and a rubber tip to prevent slips.
  2. Positioning: Stand at the bottom of the stairs and hold the cane in the hand opposite your injured leg. Place the handrail in your other hand for additional support.
  3. Climbing stairs: Step up with your stronger (or uninjured) leg first, followed by the injured leg and the cane at the same time. Always maintain at least two points of contact on the stairs for balance and support.
  4. Descending stairs: Move the cane and your injured leg down to the next step first, and then follow with the stronger leg. Remember to use the handrail for extra support.


  1. Setup: Ensure that your crutches are properly fitted, with the handgrips placed at the correct distance from the underarm pads, and rubber tips present at the bottom.
  2. Positioning: Stand at the bottom of the stairs with both crutches in one hand and the handrail in your other hand.
  3. Climbing stairs: Move your stronger leg up to the first step, placing your weight on the crutches and the handrail. Follow with the injured leg and crutches. Repeat the process for each step, always maintaining contact with the handrail.
  4. Descending stairs: Lean slightly forward and move both crutches and the injured leg down to the next step. Transfer your weight onto the crutches and the handrail before bringing your stronger leg down to the same step.


  1. Setup: Ensure that your walker is appropriately sized, with the height adjusted to a comfortable level for your arms.
  2. Positioning: Stand at the bottom of the stairs with the walker turned sideways and both hands gripping the side closest to the steps. Hold the handrail with your free hand.
  3. Climbing stairs: Begin by moving your stronger leg up to the first step. Use the walker and handrail for support. Follow closely with your injured leg, keeping pressure off it as much as possible. Repeat for the remaining steps.
  4. Descending stairs: Turn the walker sideways, hold the handrail with one hand, and grip the side of the walker closest to the stairs with your other hand. Move your injured leg down to the next step, followed by your stronger leg, using the walker and handrail for support.


  1. Using handrails: Regardless of the assistive device you choose, always use a handrail for extra support and stability when climbing or descending stairs.
  2. Positioning: Hold the handrail with the hand opposite the injured side. If both hands are occupied (e.g., when using crutches), switch one hand between the device and the handrail as needed.
  3. Climbing and descending stairs: Remember to maintain contact with the handrail, transferring your weight carefully and slowly, ensuring that you maintain your balance and stability.

Conclusion: Navigating stairs during the recovery period after a knee replacement surgery can be challenging. However, using assistive devices like canes, crutches, walkers, and handrails can help you regain your independence and confidence while climbing and descending stairs during this time. Always follow the guidance of your healthcare professional and listen to your body’s limitations to ensure a safe and successful recovery.

Image of an individual climbing stairs using canes, crutches, walkers and handrails

Photo by differentresonance on Unsplash

Managing Pain and Swelling

Knee replacement surgery can help improve your mobility and quality of life. While the recovery process may present challenges, such as pain and swelling, there are several strategies to help manage these issues. This guide provides instructions on how to effectively manage pain and swelling after knee replacement surgery using medications, ice therapy, and elevation techniques.

1. Medications:

  • a. Over-the-counter pain relievers: Take over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) to help reduce pain and swelling. Follow the directions on the medication label and consult your doctor about the appropriate dosage for your specific situation.
  • b. Prescription medications: Your doctor may prescribe stronger pain medications, such as opioids, for a short period after your surgery. Follow your doctor’s instructions on how and when to take these medications. Note that opioids can cause constipation, so consider taking a stool softener if needed.
  • c. Blood thinners: To reduce the risk of blood clots, your doctor may prescribe blood-thinning medications. Follow your doctor’s recommendations on how and when to take these medications.

2. Ice therapy:

  • a. Apply ice packs: Place an ice pack or a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel on your knee for 15-20 minutes at a time, several times a day, to help reduce swelling. Make sure not to place the ice pack directly on your skin, as this can cause frostbite.
  • b. Use cold therapy machines: As an alternative to ice packs, you can use cold therapy machines that continuously circulate cold water around your knee. Consult your doctor or physical therapist about the correct usage and duration of these machines.

3. Elevation techniques:

  • a. Elevate your leg: Prop your leg up on pillows or a bolster while resting to help reduce swelling. The ideal position is having your knee slightly above the level of your heart. Adjust the height according to your comfort.
  • b. Use a leg wedge: A leg wedge can help maintain the correct elevation and alignment of your leg while you rest. Place the leg wedge under your knee and ankle, making sure that your leg is straight and elevated.
  • c. Avoid standing or sitting for too long: Prolonged standing or sitting can increase swelling. Frequently change from sitting to standing and take short walks, as recommended by your doctor or physical therapist, to promote blood flow.

4. Additional tips:

  • a. Compression stockings: Wearing compression stockings can help promote blood flow and reduce swelling. Make sure to wear the proper size and consult your doctor for any specific recommendations.
  • b. Gentle exercises: As recommended by your physical therapist, perform gentle exercises and stretches to help improve blood circulation, reduce swelling, and promote healing. Remember to follow your therapist’s guidance and not overexert yourself.

Managing pain and swelling after knee replacement surgery is crucial for a smooth recovery. By using medications as directed, incorporating ice therapy, and employing elevation techniques, you can significantly reduce discomfort and promote healing. Always consult with your healthcare provider before making any changes to your postoperative care plan.

An image of a person sitting with their leg elevated and ice packs around the knee for pain and swelling relief- PNG

Improving Stair Climbing Endurance

After a knee replacement surgery, it is important to work on building your endurance for climbing stairs. This will not only help you to be more independent in your daily activities, but also promote joint mobility and overall physical strength. The following exercises and strategies can help you gradually increase your stair-climbing endurance in a safe and effective manner.

Safety notes:

  • Always consult your healthcare provider or physical therapist before starting any new exercise routine, especially after knee surgery.
  • Make sure you have clearance from your doctor or physical therapist before attempting stair climbing exercises.
  • Start slow and progress gradually.
  • Stop any exercise if you experience pain and consult your healthcare provider.

Exercises and strategies to improve stair-climbing endurance:

  1. Stair Training:
    • Find a staircase with a sturdy handrail.
    • Stand at the base of the stairs with your feet hip-width apart.
    • Hold onto the handrail and step up with your unaffected leg (the leg you didn’t have surgery on) first.
    • Bring your affected leg up to meet the unaffected leg on the same step.
    • Repeat this process for 3-5 steps, then turn around and step down with the affected leg first, followed by the unaffected leg.
    • If you feel comfortable and balanced, increase the number of stairs you climb up and down.
    • Start with 1-2 sets of 5 repetitions, increasing the number of repetitions as your strength and endurance improves.
  2. Leg Strengthening Exercises:
    • Doing leg exercises like squats, lunges, and calf raises can help strengthen the muscles needed for stair climbing.
    • Start with 1-2 sets of 8-12 repetitions for each exercise.
    • Use proper form and technique to prevent injury and promote better muscle activation.
  3. Aerobic Exercise:
    • Engage in low-impact aerobic activities, such as walking, cycling, or swimming, to improve your overall endurance.
    • Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, 4-5 times per week.
  4. Balance and Stability Training:
    • Practice balance exercises, such as single-leg stands and tandem walking, to improve stability while climbing stairs.
    • Incorporate core strengthening exercises, such as planks and bird dogs, to improve overall balance and coordination.
  5. Use Proper Stair-Climbing Technique:
    • Always lead with your unaffected leg when stepping up, and your affected leg when stepping down.
    • Keep your weight centered over your feet and use your arms for support, if needed.
  6. Gradual Progression:
    • Increase stair repetitions, sets, and exercise intensity only after you feel comfortable and pain-free at your current level.
    • Monitor your progress and make adjustments to your exercise routine based on your endurance, strength, and functional abilities.

Improving stair-climbing endurance after a knee replacement may require persistence and dedication. By incorporating these exercises and strategies into your daily routine, you can gradually build your endurance and make climbing stairs an easier part of your daily activities. Remember always to consult your healthcare provider before starting a new exercise routine and to stop if you experience pain or discomfort.

A person using a sturdy handrail while climbing stairs

Photo by s_tsuchiya on Unsplash

Knee Replacement Surgery Risks and Complications

Knee replacement surgery, also known as knee arthroplasty, is a common procedure to relieve pain and restore function in severely diseased knee joints. While this surgery can significantly improve the quality of life, there are potential risks and complications associated with the procedure. In particular, stairs can pose a challenge after a knee replacement. This guide will help you understand the potential risks, complications, and precautions to take when navigating stairs after a knee replacement surgery to ensure a safe and smooth recovery.

Potential risks and complications associated with knee replacement surgery:

  • Infection: Infections can occur at the site of the incision or deeper inside the knee joint. Most infections can be treated with antibiotics, but severe infections might require additional surgery or occasionally, removal of the artificial knee joint.

  • Blood clots: Blood clots in the leg veins (deep vein thrombosis) are a concern after knee replacement surgery. They can be life-threatening if they dislodge and travel to the lungs (pulmonary embolism).

  • Continued knee pain: Persistent knee pain following surgery is possible, and may be caused by the presence of arthritis in other parts of the knee, infection or implant complications.

  • Nerve or blood vessel damage: Nerves or blood vessels around the knee may be damaged during surgery, leading to numbness or weakness in the leg.

  • Implant wear and looseness: Over time, the artificial knee joint may wear out or loosen, requiring revision surgery.

Precautions for navigating stairs after knee replacement surgery:

  • Consult your physical therapist: Before attempting to climb stairs, consult with your physical therapist to make sure you are physically ready and have been taught safe techniques for going up and down stairs.

  • Use assistive devices: A handrail, cane, or walker can provide additional support while navigating stairs. Always use the handrail on the side of your unoperated leg for stability.

  • Follow the “good leg up, bad leg down” rule: When ascending stairs, step up first with your unoperated leg (the “good” leg), followed by your operated leg (the “bad” leg). When descending stairs, step down first with your operated leg, followed by your unoperated leg. This helps minimize stress on your healing knee joint.

  • Take one step at a time: Instead of moving both legs onto the same step, bring your operated leg up to meet your unoperated leg before taking another step. This method can help maintain balance and prevent falls.

  • Pacing: Make sure not to rush or push yourself too hard, especially during the initial stages of recovery. Take your time when navigating stairs and gradually increase your stair climbing activities as your strength and mobility improve.

Ongoing care and prevention:

  • Follow your doctor’s and physical therapist’s advice: Attend regular check-ups, follow their exercise recommendations, and take your prescribed medications to minimize risks and complications.

  • Maintain a healthy weight: Maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce stress on your artificial knee joint and promote long-term success.

  • Stay active: Regular physical activity can promote healing and help maintain strength and flexibility in your knee.

Knee replacement surgery can provide significant relief from pain and disability, but it also comes with potential risks and complications. By understanding these risks and taking proper precautions when navigating stairs, you can improve your chances of a successful recovery. Remember to consult with your healthcare professional before attempting new activities and to report any concerning symptoms promptly.

Illustration of a person going up the stairs with proper safety precautions and techniques. (png)

With the knowledge gained from this comprehensive guide, you’ll be better prepared for the journey that lies ahead. From the surgical process and anatomy to rehabilitation and endurance building, your stair-climbing capabilities will steadily improve as you adapt to your new knee. By embracing the process, taking necessary precautions, and staying diligent with your recovery, you’ll soon be able to navigate stairs with ease and embrace a newfound level of freedom and mobility.