Surgery is an experience that most people want to avoid. However, sometimes it’s inevitable. If you need surgery, it’s important to remember that the recovery is just as important as the surgery itself. The post-surgical period is an important and delicate time. You should try to do everything possible to avoid post-op complications. It’s easy to get so focused on having a successful surgery that you forget the hard work of healing right after.
All surgical procedures come with a risk of complications. Complications are unplanned events that happen after a procedure. They range from mild infections to potentially fatal blood clots.
Broadly speaking, complications can be lumped into two groups: general complications and those specific to particular operations. Your surgeon should be able to talk to you about which ones are relevant to your case. Here are some common post-surgical complications that can occur.
1 – Wound infection
Infections are one of the most common complications following surgery. If not caught early, infections can go from bad to worse in a short period of time. A wound infection is any bacterial or viral infection that occurs around the surgical incision site or any other place where an instrument has pierced the skin. Wound infections usually start off small and are red, itchy, and painful. You may also notice some abnormal discharge from the wound or develop a temperature at the same time. If not treated quickly, the infection can spread to other parts of the body.
The best way to avoid wound infections is to make sure that you follow your doctor’s instructions about wound management. This will include
- not picking at the wound,
- only changing the dressing during the appropriate time, and
- washing your hands thoroughly with soap, and water (and rubbing alcohol if possible) before and after touching the area.
If you notice that a wound appears red, hot to the touch, painful, or is producing abnormal discharge or you have a fever, seek medical advice immediately.
2 – Blood clots or pulmonary embolism
Blood clots (also called deep vein thrombosis or DVT’s) are clots that form in the legs and travel up to the lungs. DVT’s are potentially life-threatening and more likely if you have just had surgery.
Blood clots can form for many reasons. Staying in fixed positions for long periods of time (i.e. lying in bed for days) is the most common cause. Just as doctors tell patients to get up during long flights, it’s important to get up and move around the house every few hours as soon as you’re able.
A blood clot in the leg usually leads to a swollen, painful, and red calf. If the symptoms are caught early enough, a clot can be treated with simple medications. If the blood clot is left untreated, it can break off from the vessel in the leg and travel up to the lungs. This is called a pulmonary embolism (PE) and can be fatal.
If you notice these signs following surgery, go to the emergency department immediately.
3 – Pain
Pain is less a complication than a normal occurrence following surgery. However, the question to be asked is: how much pain will there be and what’s the best way to tackle it?
The sooner you get on top of your pain management, the better off you’ll be. In this context, sooner means even before the procedure. During your consultation, speak to your doctor about post-op pain relief. Ask them what types of pain medication you will be taking and any other alternatives they recommend. Many patients have some hesitation about taking pain medications. Your doctor can usually prescribe different types of other painkillers if this is a big concern.
Pain control after surgery helps you get out of bed faster, speed your recovery, and reduce the risk of developing complications.
4 – Pneumonia
Pneumonia is an infection of the lungs that affects millions of people around the world. There are hundreds of different kinds of bacteria and viruses that can cause a lung infection. Just after surgery, people are particularly susceptible because
- their immune system is weak,
- their nutrition status is low,
- and there are more opportunities for the bacteria to invade the body.
If pneumonia develops after an operation, it usually happens 3-7 days after. It may manifest with a high temperature, shortness of breath, chest pain, and/or a cough.
Antibiotics may be needed to get rid of the infection. If you have any of the signs above, see your doctor right away.
5- Anesthesia reactions
When you wake up from surgery, you might not feel too well. “Going under”, or being under anesthesia, can cause a few side effects. These may include:
- Sore throat
- Temporary confusion
These symptoms should not last long. Let your doctor know if these symptoms persist or increase.
6- Muscle loss
Part of recovering from surgery includes rest. It is a very important part. However, too much rest can have a negative effect on your muscles. Even after a few days of constant rest, your muscles begin to weaken. Just one day of bed rest can cause a 1% loss of muscle mass. This increases to 5% for elderly adults.
However, getting up and moving around for just a few minutes every few hours (or every hour if you can) can help. Sitting up and stretching is also a good way to reduce muscle loss. Get quality nutrition will also help you heal faster and prevent further muscle loss. Eat healthy food and consider taking a supplement under the direction of your doctor.
7- Breathing difficulty
Anesthesia can affect your normal breathing pattern. You could experience some wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath. Deep breathing exercises can help support your lungs while you recover. Since you often feel fatigued and weak after surgery, deep breathing can cause some discomfort. Here are some tips for using deep breathing as a successful recovery tool:
- Sit upright, like at the edge of your bed
- Start by taking a few normal breaths, progressively getting slower and deeper
- Hold your breath for up to five seconds
Some top tips on having a speedy recovery:
- Get out of bed and start moving around the house as soon as you can.
- Eat and drink properly–try to get as many healthy calories as possible. Consider supplements if you’re not getting all your daily minerals and vitamins.
- Stay hydrated–water, tea, juices, and other clear fluids are all good options.
- Follow your doctor’s orders even if they don’t make sense!
If you’ve just had surgery, don’t be hesitant to call your doctor with concerns. Some things are normal after surgery and will typically pass after a few days. If it feels like an emergency, contact your surgeon or seek medical attention2.