10 Ways To Improve Your Recovery After Surgery

If surgery is in your future, you may be interested in how you can heal faster, return to work faster, and maybe even get back to the gym faster. Your "need for speed" may be profound, but try to remember that the quality of your recovery matters, too.

An excellent place to begin your recovery journey is with your discharge instructions. Read them carefully, make sure you understand every word, and call your healthcare provider if you have any questions.

In the meantime, 10 post-surgery tips ought to serve you well, ensuring that you heal both quickly and properly.  

Unfocused image of patient on bed in hospital
Cherayut Jankitrattanapokkin / EyeEm / Getty Images

1. Follow Your Healthcare Provider's Instructions

You won't get far without hearing this reminder, probably repeatedly. But healthcare providers have learned plenty from post-op patients who follow the instructions they like and disregard the rest. This is the wrong response because there is always a reason for an instruction.

Some of the rules may cramp your style, such as being told not to take a bath, swim, or lift anything heavier than 10 pounds for the first few weeks after surgery. Rather than dig in and countermand your doctor, call and ask for the reason behind an instruction.

2. Keep Your Follow-Up Appointments

Many patients do not keep all of their follow-up appointments. If you're feeling good and your wound is healing well, an appointment may seem like an unneeded expense and waste of time. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Your healthcare provider will want to know how you feel and if your incision is healing well, but they also might look for additional things you may not be privy to, such as signs of infection. Your medications may also be adjusted, so by all means: Don't skip your follow-up appointments.

3. Prevent Infection

Preventing infection is vital to having 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.

Surgical site infections are rare and usually occur within 30 days of surgery. Still, it's worth asking your doctor what you can do to keep your skin up to the task of blocking infection.

4. Inspect Your Incision

Looking at your incision may not be your favorite thing to do, but it's important that you take a good look at your incision several times a day. Is the incision pink or red? Is there wound drainage and, if so, what color is it? Are the stitches or staples intact?

These questions are very important, and inspecting your incision will help you determine if your surgical site is continuing to heal or if it has become infected.

5. Care for Your Incision the Right Way

Many people go overboard in trying to keep their incision clean. They want to scrub it and remove any scabs that form around it. Or they want to use alcohol or peroxide to keep the area free of germs. Unless your surgeon specifically instructs you otherwise, a gentle wash with soap and water is all the care that your incision needs.

It may be unsightly, but scabbing is normal around surgical staples. Removing them could slow the healing process. Similarly, soaking the incision can be harmful because it could weaken the incision line.

Many surgeons recommend showers instead of baths following surgery and often forbid swimming during the early stages of recovery. Check with your surgeon for special instructions.

6. Drink and Eat Properly

Many people lose their appetite after having surgery. They may feel nauseated, constipated, or just don't feel hungry. But 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.

You may need help modifying your diet, so don't be shy about asking for help. Your provider probably has plenty of practical ideas for you until your appetite returns.

Eating Means Healing

It is hard to heal if your body doesn’t have the fuel it needs to get better.

7. Cough and Sneeze Carefully

Who knew that coughing and sneezing the way you’ve been doing it your entire life isn’t the "right way" after some surgeries? It turns out that if you have an abdominal incision, you can do 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 cause a new surgical incision to open. It's crucial that you brace the incision, which means applying pressure to the area, while you cough or sneeze. You can do this with your hands or by covering the area with a pillow.

Gentle pressure will help keep the sutures intact. Bracing gets easier with practice; it may even become second nature as you feel a cough coming on.

8. Know When To Go To the ER

Your post-op instructions should spell out when to seek emergency care. But in general, call your healthcare provider if you're bleeding or having trouble breathing or you can’t keep food or water down, have trouble urinating, or have obvious signs of infection.

If you can’t reach your surgeon, your primary care healthcare provider or the emergency room should be your next stop. Better to err on the side of being cautious while you're recovering from surgery.

9. Control Your Pain

Keeping pain under control after surgery is crucial. Some patients resist the idea, either because they fear they'll get hooked on it, they consider medication a sign of weakness, or they don’t like how they feel after taking prescription drugs.

If you can relate, look at it this way: If you're in too much pain to cough, you put yourself at risk for pneumonia. And if you're in too much pain to walk, you're at risk for blood clots and pneumonia. Keeping your pain at a tolerable level (no pain may be an unreasonable goal) will keep your recovery process moving along as it should.

Two other tips may help: Wash down your pain medication with ample fluid; meds can lead to dehydration and constipation, and water will ease digestion. And take your medication regularly, as prescribed. You'll stay ahead of the pain (instead of "chasing" it) and you'll probably sleep better, too. Sleep promotes healing.

10. Get Moving

Walking after surgery is one of the most important things you can do for your recovery. A quick walk around your home every hour or two can help prevent serious complications like deep vein thrombosis (DVT) (a blood clot) and pneumonia.

Walking is a gentle way to return to physical activity. It can also hasten your return to all of your normal activities.


Following your healthcare provider's post-op instructions and keeping your follow-up medical appointments are vital to your post-surgery recovery. Other steps are important, too, such as caring for your incision, eating and drinking properly to regain your strength, and controlling your pain.

A Word From Verywell

Many people do not follow their post-op instructions—and then wonder why it takes them so long to recover. Your body needs time to heal and won't take kindly to being rushed. Skipping important steps won't help, either. Try to remember that the success of your recovery largely depends on how well you follow your post-op instructions.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does post-surgery fatigue last?

    It can vary. Anesthesia can cause grogginess for about 24 hours after surgery. Major procedures that require a hospital stay will cause fatigue for longer than minor outpatient procedures. Ask your doctor to be sure.

  • How long does post-surgery nausea last?

    Nausea and vomiting can occur for a few hours and even up to several days following anesthesia. If you're experiencing nausea or vomiting, let your healthcare provider know so they can help you treat it.

8 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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  2. Tartari E, Weterings V, Gastmeier P, et al. Patient engagement with surgical site infection prevention: an expert panel perspective. Antimicrob Resist Infect Control. 2017;6:45. doi:10.1186/s13756-017-0202-3.

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Surgical site infections.

  4. Son D, Harijan A. Overview of surgical scar prevention and management. J Korean Med Sci. 2014;29(6):751-7. doi:10.3346/jkms.2014.29.6.751.

  5. Grass F, Schäfer M, Demartines N, Hübner M. Normal diet within two postoperative days-realistic or too ambitious?. Nutrients. 2017;9(12). doi:10.3390/nu9121336.

  6. Gan T. Poorly controlled postoperative pain: Prevalence, consequences, and prevention. J Pain Res. 2017;10:2287-2298. doi:10.2147/JPR.S144066.

  7. Hoogeboom T, Dronkers J, Hulzebos E, Van meeteren N. Merits of exercise therapy before and after major surgery. Curr Opin Anaesthesiol. 2014;27(2):161-6. doi:10.1097/ACO.0000000000000062.

  8. American Society of Anesthesiologists. Effects of anesthesia.

Additional Reading

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.