Feeling Fatigue After Surgery

Identify What Is Normal and What Is Not

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Fatigue is very common after having surgery. Even minor surgical procedures, such as outpatient surgeries, can leave you feeling very tired. Major procedures, especially those that require several days of recovery in the hospital, can cause fatigue that lasts for an extended period of time—weeks or even months.

Tips to Mitigate Post-Surgery Fatigue
Verywell / Brooke Pelczynski

Normal Fatigue

Fatigue is often normal after having surgery and it typically improves throughout the recovery period. You might not feel better each day, but you should experience steady progress from week to week, eventually getting back to your normal energy level.

In some instances, you might be exhausted beyond the feeling of fatigue in the first few days following major surgery, but that should not persist past the initial recovery phase.

Fatigue can come and go. For example, you may feel more energetic on a Monday, and after being very active, you can feel very tired on Tuesday as a result. After a little rest, you might feel energetic again on Wednesday. Try to avoid major increases in activity from day to day, because that can result in pain and exhaustion. 

Abnormal Fatigue

Fatigue should pass, sometimes slowly, as your recovery progresses. If your tiredness isn't improving or if you have increasing fatigue without an obvious explanation during your recovery, you should discuss it with your surgeon.

If fatigue is long-lasting and does not seem to be improving with an otherwise normal recovery, your primary care provider or surgeon will evaluate you for potential causes.

Causes

There are multiple reasons for fatigue after surgery. Some are a normal part of surgery, and others may be unrelated to the surgical process.

Normal Healing Process

Healing takes a great deal of energy from your body, and this can make you feel very tired, You might need to sit and rest or sleep as your body recovers.

Anesthesia

The medications used for anesthesia during surgery are known to cause fatigue, and sometimes they even cause confusion. As the effects of anesthetics wear off, your fatigue should dramatically improve.

For people who are young and healthy, anesthesia wears off much more quickly than it does in older and less healthy individuals.

Anemia

Anemia is a condition caused by a lack of healthy red blood cells. Bleeding during surgery can reduce the number of red blood cells an individual has in circulation.

Anemia is often accompanied by intolerance for physical activity. The lower the number of red blood cells, the more severe the fatigue.

Anemia should resolve in a few weeks as your body makes new red blood cells to replace those that were lost from bleeding. If the problem doesn't resolve in the weeks following surgery, your doctor will consider other potential causes of your anemia.

Lack of Oxygen

Some people can begin to breathe differently after surgery because it hurts to cough or take a deep breath. This can contribute to low energy.

Another issue, sleep apnea, which is a condition that causes a person to stop breathing for short periods of time while sleeping, can be worsened if you are taking pain medication after your surgery. 

Infection

A post-operative infection can cause a dramatic increase in fatigue, especially serious infections. Painful, limited breathing is one of the risk factors for postoperative pneumonia, which can cause serious complications during the recovery period.

Fatigue Before Surgery

According to one study, the best way to predict fatigue after surgery is to consider fatigue levels prior to surgery. If you're experiencing substantial fatigue prior to your procedure, it can be expected to be high after surgery too. 

You might have low presurgical energy if you have a severe illness that is cured by your surgery, or it can be caused by having other, unrelated medical conditions.

Poor Nutrition

Eating well after surgery is essential for fueling the healing process. Incisions heal better and recovery moves along faster when you get proper nutrition. This can be a challenge if you are having trouble eating by mouth. And if you're too tired to eat, it can create a cycle of exhaustion and malnutrition.

If you aren't eating as directed, tell your doctor. They might prescribe a nutritional supplement to give you the nourishment you need to regain your strength.

Medication

Pain medications can make people have low energy and feel sleepy, and sometimes they can even make you confused. While powerful pain medications might be necessary for you as you are healing from your surgical wound, talk to your doctor about gradually reducing your dose.

Unrelated Conditions

It is absolutely possible that your surgery has nothing to do with your fatigue. You could have a thyroid problem, the flu, or any number of conditions that can cause fatigue—with or without a trip to the operating room. If your fatigue isn't clearly linked to your surgery, you will need an evaluation and treatment for it. 

Improving Energy

If you are feeling fatigued after surgery, there are some simple steps that you can take to improve your energy levels:

  • Hydrate: Drinking ample fluids, particularly water, can help improve energy levels.
  • Eat well: Good nutrition is the most basic defense against fatigue.
  • Minimize pain medication: Take only the pain medication you need and no more. Too much pain medication means too much sedation.
  • Don’t do too much: Pushing to do more activity too soon often means a day of recovery. Increase your activity level gently. 

A Word From Verywell

Some fatigue and some difficulty sleeping are absolutely normal after surgery, particularly in the first few days of recovery, but outright exhaustion is often a sign of a bigger problem.

Fatigue should slowly improve over the course of days or weeks, so you may not feel better on Friday than you did on Thursday, but you should feel better next weekend than you did this weekend.

It can be a slow and drawn-out process to return to normal energy levels and activities after having surgery. If your energy level isn't improving, or if your fatigue worsens without a clear reason, talk to your doctor about it.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does fatigue last after open heart surgery?

    You may feel the most fatigue between two and four weeks after cardiac surgery. This can be related to pain medication, inflammation, muscle loss from lack of activity, and preexisting fatigue before the surgery. Check with your doctor if you have any concerns or if your fatigue is getting worse several weeks after surgery.

  • How long does fatigue from general anesthesia last?

    General anesthesia usually wears off in a few hours, but you will probably still feel groggy for about 24 hours. People who have multiple medical problems can still feel tired for a few days. While most people recover quickly from anesthesia, sometimes "brain fog" or memory problems can last up to a few months after surgery.

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9 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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