The mental impact of knee surgery

Dale Silver is a hard-working tradesman who wasn’t particularly phased about a bit of pain before going in for his 13th knee operation. But the impact it had on his mental and emotional wellbeing – came as a big shock.

“I wasn’t prepared for how emotional it was,” says Dale. “I’ve had 13 knee ops and my pain tolerance is pretty high, but with this I was pretty shocked at how traumatic is was.” 

Not being able to do the things he could before, both at home and at work, made him worry about the future.

“I’m 53 and I didn’t expect it to be like this because being younger you’ve got to be so active still,” he says. “I’ve got a family, I’ve got to work and it really affected me because it felt like it was never going to end.”

At his lowest point he found himself depressed and tearful.

“I found myself crying and I was getting really down in myself and that’s when I decided in conjunction with my wife to speak to the doctor.”

Dale found talking to his physio, who is a family friend, and working with his GP really helped change negative thought patterns, along with medication and daily bike sessions on his electric bike.

He wants others to think about more than the physical aspects, but also consider the mental impact of knee surgery.

“You’ve got to really get your mind strong because you’re going to have so many ups and downs,” says Dale. “I think people really need to talk more to the surgeon and even a psychologist because it’s pretty full on.”

Megan Davis, a psychologist in sport and injury management says asking questions and being as informed as possible is crucial to preparing yourself mentally and physically for knee surgery.

“Right from the word ‘go’ patients need to be an active participant, asking questions, seeing the choices available to them and making that choice rather than feeling like they are a passenger in the process,” says Davis.

Davis says it’s vital patients understand what the likely recovery process is, stay proactive, and set long and short-term goals.
“Rehab is no fun and it hurts, so when you say ‘why?’ you need to have the answers to that,” she says. “I always say write your goals in pencil because things can change so it’s when those goals are set in stone and something doesn’t go as planned things can go wrong,” says Davis.

While acknowledging knee surgery is a big deal, Davis says you also need perspective.

 “Keep life front and centre of the focus, and the injury and the rehab as something that is going along with that,” says Davis. “Sometimes if people pay too much attention to it they put injury recovery at the front and centre and say ‘once my knee gets better then I’ll get back to life’ and I don’t like that approach.”
And remember everybody’s experience is different. 
“Knee surgery is such a common thing and everyone’s got a story to tell and that can be really difficult if you’re not going so well with it and someone else has found it a breeze and was back to work in no time at all,” says Davis. “Everybody’s experience is different so you can take what’s useful from other people but don’t compare.”
Megan Davis recommends:
  1. Practicing mindfulness of any description to help you step back from being absorbed in the process of recovery
  2. Consider ‘mental’ time travelling. Think about what you enjoyed doing and engaged with before the surgery. Even if you can’t do the same thing in the same way, consider whether you can engage with that passion in a different way. Also, imagine two years from now what would you like your life to look like, beyond recovering from knee surgery.
  3. Use this time as an opportunity to start something new; learn a language, start a project you’ve always wanted to start or take the time for regular catch ups with someone you’ve wanted more time with.
  4. Seek help if you are worried about how you, or someone you love is coping after surgery. Your GP is often a good place to start. 
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