If you are having surgery, you may be interested in how you can heal faster, return to work faster, maybe even get back to the gym faster. Overall, recovering from surgery is a straightforward process of following the discharge instructions, which can be challenging for some individuals. For most surgery patients it is truly that simple. For others, healing quickly requires diligence and effort in caring for their incision, and their body as a whole, after surgery.
Here are some helpful hints for how to be the patient who heals quickly, easily and faster than the surgeon predicted.
1. Follow Your Doctor’s Instructions
This seems like a no-brainer, but many patients follow the instructions that they think are meaningful and disregard the ones that they don’t like or don’t feel apply to them. A simple instruction, such as no baths after a procedure, may seem silly but there is typically a very good reason for them. If your doctor says showers only, or no swimming, or tells you not to lift anything heavier than ten pounds for the first few weeks after surgery, there is likely a very good reason for this.
2. Keep Your Follow Up Appointments
Another suggestion that seems like it would be obvious, but many patients do not keep all of their follow-up appointments. If you are feeling good and your wound is healing well, an appointment may seem like an unneeded expense and waste of time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Your physician will want to know how you feel and if your incision is healing well, but they will be looking for additional things that you may not. Your surgeon may be looking for something you cannot see, especially if your incision isn’t visible (such as a vaginal hysterectomy). They may do follow-up blood work, look for signs of infection, or want to make sure your condition has been adequately treated by the surgery. You may also require adjustment of your medications in the weeks following surgery.
3. Prevent Infection
Preventing infection is one of the simplest things that you can do to have an excellent outcome from your procedure. Washing your hands before touching your incision is one of the easiest and most important things you can do during your recovery.
4. Inspect Your Incision
Looking at your incision may not be your favorite thing to do, but it is important that you take a good look at your incision several times a day. Now there are procedures where this isn’t possible, but for the vast majority of procedures, a mirror makes it possible to have a good look at the surgical site. Is your incision pink or red? Is there wound drainage and what color is it? Are the stitches or staples intact? These questions are very important and looking at your incision several times a day will help you determine if your surgical site is continuing to heal or if it has become infected.
5. Drink and Eat Properly
Many people don’t feel like eating after having surgery. They are nauseated, constipated, or just not hungry. Staying hydrated and eating a healthy diet after surgery can help promote healing, minimize common complications, and help you get past unwanted side effects of anesthesia. Just remember, it is hard to heal if your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs to get better.
6. Cough and Sneeze Carefully
Who knew that coughing and sneezing the way you’ve been doing it your entire life isn’t good enough after some surgeries? It turns out that if you have an abdominal incision, you can do some serious harm to your incision if you cough or sneeze the wrong way. A new incision isn’t very strong and a violent sneeze can actually cause a surgical incision to open.
Bracing your incision, which means applying pressure to the incision, is essential when coughing, sneezing or even going to the bathroom. You can do this with your hands, or a pillow if you have one nearby. Just remember that coughing is important and you should be coughing frequently after surgery: coughing helps prevent pneumonia!
7. Care For Your Incision The Right Way
You know you should wash your hands before touching your incision, but then what? Caring for your incision doesn't need to be complicated or difficult. Believe it or not, most patients try to get their incision a bit too clean. They want to scrub their incision and remove the scabs that form, or they want to use alcohol or peroxide to keep the area free of germs. Unless your surgeon specifically instructs you to do any of those things, a gentle wash with soap and water is more than adequate.
It may not be pretty, but it is normal to have scabbing on your surgical staples and removing them could actually cause your incision to heal far more slowly. Soaking your incision in an effort to keep it clean can also be harmful because it can weaken the incision line. Many surgeons recommend showers instead of baths following surgery and often forbid swimming during the early stages of recovery.
8. Know When To Go to the ER
Are your symptoms normal or a sign of an emergency? The general answer is this: if you are seriously concerned you should call your doctor or go to an ER. In general, if you are bleeding, having trouble breathing, can’t keep food/water down, cannot urinate, or you have obvious signs of infection, you need to see a doctor. If you can’t reach your surgeon, your primary care physician or the emergency room should be your next stop.
9. Control Your Pain
Keeping your pain under control is very important after surgery. Some patients hesitate to take their pain medication as prescribed because they fear addiction or other issues. Others feel that taking pain medication is a sign of weakness, or they don’t like how they feel when they take prescription drugs. However, if you are in too much pain to cough, you are at risk for pneumonia. If you are in too much pain to walk, you are at risk for blood clots and pneumonia.
Keeping your pain at a tolerable level (no pain may be an unreasonable goal) will help you keep moving and speed the healing process. Just make sure to drink ample fluids along with pain medications, as they can lead to dehydration and constipation.
It is often easier to control pain if you take the medication regularly, as prescribed. Waiting until the pain is severe and then taking pain medication results in a long wait for the drug to take effect. It is better to keep the pain under control and at a tolerable level, rather than waiting until it is severe and waiting for relief. Good pain control can make it far easier to sleep, which also promotes healing.
10. Get Moving
Walking after surgery is one of the most important things you can do after having a procedure. It may seem like a simple thing, but a quick walk every hour or two can help prevent serious complications like deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pneumonia. It can also help prevent one very common and annoying side effect of anesthesia: constipation. Walking is a gentle way to return to physical activity and can help promote a return to regular activities.
Talk to your surgeon about when you can return to more strenuous activities, such as running and contact sports. Swimming should wait until your wound is completely closed.
Recovering from surgery shouldn't be complicated, but it will take some time and energy along with a willingness to follow the instructions provided by your surgeon. A surprisingly large number of people do not follow those instructions and then wonder why they are having pain, healing slowly or both. Your healing body needs time to heal and won't tolerate being rushed, but being smart may lead to shorter recovery and a quick return to your normal activities.
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