One of the most frustrating aspects of life after limb loss is not knowing what to expect. Not knowing when you'll be able to walk again or how long the phantom pain will last is made even more frustrating by the fact that no one knows the answer. The best answer for questions like these is: It depends.
The truth is, everyone progresses differently. And using hard measurements, like a date, can often lead to disappointment. Recovery time after an amputation is unpredictable because each person's progress is as unique as each person's genetic makeup.
Instead of fixating on a number, we suggest focusing on achieving specific milestones. Below, we outline some of the common post-amputation milestones that are reliable signs of progress. However, it's important not to rush and force yourself to achieve these milestones. Always listen to your body.
Getting out of bed
Doing simple tasks, like getting out of bed, can take a considerable amount of patience and courage, especially after surgery. However, once you're able to get out of bed on your own or with minimal supervision, you'll know that your recovery journey has begun.
Using assistive devices
If you're a lower-limb amputee, expect your healthcare team to help you learn how to walk once your physician gives the okay and your sutures have been removed. The first few tries won't be easy, but you must continue to work to improve. Gaining the ability to use assistive devices will significantly enhance your mobility, making your rehabilitation journey more manageable.
However, always remember that everybody is different. Some people need to deal with other medical conditions or weakened muscles, making it difficult to walk with assistive devices at this stage. If this is the case for you, don't force yourself, however continue to work slightly outside of your comfort zone.
Accepting the support of family and friends
Being surrounded by family and friends at this point can be uncomfortable for some people. You'll feel uncomfortable due to residual limb pain, and you will require assistance. Meanwhile, they will try to adapt by striking a balance between being bothersome and helpful. Everyone will need some time to adjust to your new situation.
No matter how awkward this stage might be, it's crucial to communicate when you need help and also let them also know what you can do by yourself. Accepting the support of the people around you while also establishing independence is a milestone in itself.
Joining a support group
For some people, asking for help from other people can be difficult. However, joining a support group or having a peer visitor is a pivotal point in your journey to recovery. Having another amputee to talk to can be comforting as they can help you find answers to many of the questions you may have.
Restoring physical health
Being physically fit is a crucial element to your recovery. If exercise wasn't a part of your life, you need to develop the habit now.
After amputation, you need to start working on your balance, cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and strength. You'll need these to begin fitting for your first prosthetic limb.
Other milestones to watch out for at this stage include:
Maintaining your balance while standing.
Rising from a chair without supervision.
Walking with an assistive device.
Once you're able to do these tasks, you should be ready for a prosthetic fitting.
Reduced residual limb swelling
A stable residual limb means less pain, which signals the start of the prosthetic limb fitting process. However, some people may still experience fluctuations in their residual limb size due to fluid retention or a medical condition. If this is the case for you, you have nothing to worry about. You can manage the size of your residual limb by continuing to wear a compression wrap or shrinker when you're not wearing your prosthetic limb, like when you're sleeping.
Working with your prosthetist
For some people, especially those who opt for elective amputation, meeting and working with their prosthetist occurs even before the amputation surgery. But for others, finding the right prosthetist after amputation may take some time. If you're in the latter, know that it's alright. You don't have to rush the process.
Your prosthetist will help you make crucial decisions that can affect your health and overall wellbeing. So, meet and interview as many prosthetists as possible, ask them questions, do some research, and talk to other amputees.
Using your first prosthetic limb
Prosthetic training is an essential step in your road to recovery, but it also takes time. You'll work with an occupational therapist and/or a physical therapist who specializes in prosthetic training, and you'll put in a lot of work. But take heart; learning how to use your prosthetic limb properly reduces unnecessary effort and increases functional movement. Once you've mastered using your prosthetic limb, your everyday life will become a bit easier.
Returning to work and doing leisure activities
Regardless of the amputation level or the extent of limb loss, people living with limb loss often return to work and resume leisure activities they used to enjoy.
Work can do wonders for one's mental health and sense of worth. You may have to make some adjustments in your daily routine and work setup, but they're worth it.
You will also need to make some modifications before enjoying the same leisure activities you used to do. Don't let the thought of modifying things stop you from doing the things you used to love. These activities are beneficial for your mental health, plus you'll meet more like-minded people who can help you on your way to recovery.
Accepting your amputee journey is one of the most challenging breakthroughs. For many amputees, the key to achieving acceptance is not focusing on the limb loss but rather the whole person. Once you're focused on living your life to the fullest, being comfortable in who you are right now will follow.
Always remember that there are no set time frames for each milestone because everybody is different. One person's road to recovery will look different when compared to another person's. But you can work towards hitting these milestones by setting achievable short-term goals while keeping your long-term goals in mind. And of course, don't forget to enjoy everything else that life has to offer. Don't be so focused on your goals that you forget to relax and rest once in a while.