From pain and stiffness to the unknown origin of some of my symptoms, I hadn’t realized how much RA could complicate my recovery.
It’s been 3 years since I had emergency knee surgery.
Having rheumatoid arthritis (RA) definitely made recovery more difficult than I expected. I learned a lot of things during the process that I wish I had known beforehand, from recovery tricks to preventive care.
My meniscus injury came as a complete shock. I’ve had arthritis in my knees since I was a teenager. When I was first diagnosed with RA at age 10, I already had a problem with my left knee. It was painful and swollen for many years, and I had to get steroid injections every so often.
In my late 20s, my RA symptoms suddenly appeared in my right knee. It became swollen, tender, and painful to walk on or bend it. This would end up being the knee I injured.
For about a year before my injury, I was experiencing intense knee pain that wasn’t responding to medication. Nothing seemed to help, but I didn’t think much about it except that I was having a bad, prolonged flare.
Then one day, I slid sideways onto the couch, and something snapped. I heard a pop — then, my knee was stuck in a bent position. I couldn’t straighten or move it in any direction, and the pain was unbearable. My family had to call an ambulance to take me to the emergency room for an MRI.
The MRI confirmed I had a torn meniscus. It was a bucket handle tear, and no part of the meniscus was attached to the side of my knee where it should’ve been.
Because the tear was so serious, I underwent surgery to repair the meniscus the next day. It went well, but my doctor said he cleaned out some arthritic damage behind my kneecap. I was surprised to hear that there was much damage because I hadn’t struggled with RA in that knee for more than a few years.
He also mentioned all the excruciating knee pain I had been experiencing that year was probably a combination of my RA and a torn meniscus. I didn’t know my meniscus was torn, so it worsened until it snapped the way it did.
I went home on the same day as my surgery. Trying to walk on crutches to get in the house was incredibly challenging. My husband and my dad had to practically carry me inside.
The next few days were a blur. Once the nerve blocker wore off in my leg, the pain really increased. I was taking several types of pain relievers, but it was still intense.
A week after surgery, I had my first follow-up. The pain was still bad, but it was slowly getting better. My surgeon took out the stitches and made sure everything was going well. Aside from pain, the incision looked good, and he felt everything was moving along on the right timeline.
The surgeon told me recovery was typically 6 to 8 weeks, but having RA can make it longer because it can interfere with healing. He was right. My recovery took a very long time.
I started physical therapy (PT) about 2 weeks after surgery. I could barely move my knee, which was very swollen and stiff. You’re not supposed to bend your knee past 90 degrees for many weeks after meniscus surgery, so my PT focused on strengthening the muscles in my leg instead.
Because my surgery occurred right at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, I had to wait longer than I should have to see a PT. I did most of it from home for the first 6 weeks.
During those weeks, I experienced knee pain, swelling, and incredible stiffness. It was hard to tell what symptoms were from surgery and what was my RA. I continued to work on the PT exercises and walk on crutches. By the end of this 6-week mark, I was using just one crutch to get around. My goal was to get off the crutches completely and walk independently.
I was not magically better at the end of the 6-week mark. The meniscus had healed, but I still struggled with pain, swelling, and lifting my leg when it was straight.
The doctor diagnosed it as quadricep dysfunction — the quad in my leg wasn’t working right — along with a buildup of scar tissue, which caused the knee to swell. He gave me a steroid injection to relieve the swelling and prescribed 8 more weeks of PT.
Recovery was painful. I started working on my quad muscles and even did some dry needling therapy. During the PT sessions, we also started actively working on bending my knee. At this point, I still struggled to bend much past 90 degrees due to stiffness.
I went back to the doctor at 16 weeks for another follow-up. They did an MRI to confirm the meniscus had completely healed. I still had swelling under the kneecap area, which seemed to be the continued cause of the quad dysfunction.
Anytime I tried to straighten or bend my leg, I had a lot of pain. Once it was in the position I wanted it to be in, the pain went away but Icontinued to struggle with transitional movements.
I officially finished physical therapy at the end of October, 8 months after my surgery. My knee was much better at this time, but transitional movements were still causing me some trouble.
My doctor said to give it some time to see how it went over the next few weeks.
At the beginning of 2021, I went back to the surgeon with the same issues. My knee was not functioning like it should or did before surgery. It wasn’t just knee pain, but the inability to move it like it needed to.
He suggested a round of Airrosti treatments, a highly targeted manual therapy in combination with rehab exercises. I did one session a week during February 2021. They helped a little bit, but I didn’t get the results I was looking for — my knee pain and movement issues were still happening.
At this point, the doctor said I might need another knee surgery. He thought scar tissue could’ve built up, causing my knee not to function right. But I really didn’t want to undergo another knee surgery, so I decided to give it some time.
I made my own recovery routine by doing reformer Pilates twice a week and walking every day. My knee still had issues, but it slowly improved each week. By the 18-month mark, I felt like my knee was finally improving when I would try to transition from bent to straight or vice versa.
I continued to exercise, and every month I saw tiny improvements in my movement.
It’s been almost 3 years since my surgery. My knee is still not 100% the same as before — I can’t sit back on my knees or bend my knee all the way — but it feels pretty good. It’s not swollen anymore.
I sometimes get arthritic flares in my knee, but it responds well to my regular medication. I’m cautious about how I move my knees and try to protect my meniscuses. Safe and regular exercise, like Pilates, has been the key for me.
This knee surgery was unexpected for me. If I could go back in time, I would have addressed my severe knee pain earlier on. If I had realized I had a torn meniscus before it totally snapped, I could have had minor surgery and better recovery.
We know our bodies better than anybody. If something really doesn’t feel right, get it checked out.
I also wish I had known that having RA can really slow down healing. If you go through a joint surgery or surgery of any kind, don’t get upset if you don’t heal in the typical 6 to 8 weeks as others. Recovery is a process.
Medically reviewed on March 06, 2023
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