What to Expect When Recovering From Surgery

Recovering from surgery is greatly dependent upon the type of surgery you will be having. An outpatient procedure, such as hand surgery, will have a far different recovery period than an invasive inpatient procedure like heart bypass surgery. Let's focus on recovery from an inpatient procedure.

Hospital patient about to receive anesthesia
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Recovery From Anesthesia

You may need a few hours in the post-anesthesia care unit until the anesthesia wears off. During most recoveries, the patient will wake, breathing on his own, while being monitored closely for any complications from surgery.

Some people will feel sleepy but otherwise fine as the anesthesia wears off. Others may experience nausea, chills, or vomiting. There may also be throat pain if you were intubated to assist with breathing during surgery.

The post-operative nurse will monitor your condition so that appropriate treatment can be delivered if side effects occur.

Once the anesthesia has worn off, the business of recovering truly begins. Patients who are physically able will be expected to walk or sit on the edge of the bed as soon as they are able. This activity is essential to prevent complications, including deep vein thrombosis.

Pain Control

Pain control during this time is essential, as movement can cause an increase in pain level. Being pain-free is not a reasonable expectation, so pain should be controlled in order to enable movement, coughing, and sleep. A dramatic increase in pain for no apparent reason should be reported to the hospital staff.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Advil (ibuprofen) and Aleve (naproxen) can be used alone for mild to moderate pain. For moderate to severe pain, NSAIDs are often used in combination with opioids.

Before surgery, let your healthcare provider if you take pain medications regularly and if you are allergic or intolerant to certain pain medications.

Preventing Complications

Deep coughing, commonly referred to as "a cough-and-deep breathe," is encouraged following surgery. Coughing expands the lungs and helps prevent pneumonia and other breathing difficulties. Medications such as bronchodilators may be used to help open the lungs and make breathing easier.

Incision care is also important after surgery. Depending on the nature of the surgery, the bandage may need to be changed frequently or only when ordered by the surgeon. The nursing staff will show you how to care for the wound once you are home.

Two common side effects of anesthesia and pain medication are constipation and dysuria (difficulty urinating). To better prevent this, clear fluids will be encouraged and a mild stool softener may be prescribed by the surgeon.

If a patient is unable to empty their bladder, a catheter may be reinserted into the urethra until they are able to urinate on their own.

In addition to temporary bladder paralysis, the digestive tract is often slow to “wake” from anesthesia. Once the digestive system is moving, the patient will be allowed to begin a clear liquid diet and progress to a normal diet.

Hospital Discharge

Prior to discharge, it is essential that any special requirements for returning home are addressed. If the patient needs oxygen, a special bed, or mobility equipment, the hospital will provide assistance in securing these.

Once the surgeon determines that the patient is well enough to be discharged, the patient will need assistance to either return home or be transported to an after-care facility if they are too weak to care for themselves.

In the majority of cases, the patient is able to return to his own home after leaving the hospital. The medical staff will provide a list of discharge instructions specific to the patient’s needs, including specific instructions about wound care.

Home Care

The level of activity permitted varies based on the procedure performed. Some surgeries, such as a hip replacement, may require physical therapy while other patients may be discharged with instructions to “take it easy.”

Pain is a good indication of whether or not the patient is trying to do too much too soon. Pain should be controlled enough to allow walking short distances, sitting in a chair, and coughing.

The goal of pain control is not to stop pain completely, especially after major surgery. Doing so can lead to medication abuse, a particularly troubling situation when opioids are involved. Because of this, healthcare providers will prescribe opioids for only a short period of time without any prescription repeats.

If you are unable to take care of yourself completely but don't need a nursing home, a home health care aid can be obtained through any number of private and governmental organizations.

Most health insurance plans cover home healthcare service, so be sure to check your policy (ideally in advance of your surgery) to determine what benefits you are allowed.

When to Call a Healthcare Provider

When recovering at home, it is important to know when to notify the surgeon of any complications that arise after surgery. The following signs and symptoms are warnings of possible complications and should be reported to the surgeon immediately:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fever over 100.4 F
  • Black, tar-like stools (indicating internal bleeding)
  • Increasing or worsening pain
  • Increased swelling, pain, or redness around the incision
  • Pus-like or foul-smelling wound discharge
  • Confusion, dizziness, or fainting
  • Persistent diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting
  • Inability to tolerate food or drink
  • Unexplained pain in one or both legs

Call seek emergency care if you see red streaks rapidly extending from the wound on skin that is hot and tender to the touch. These are symptoms of a potentially deadly bacterial infection known as cellulitis.

4 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.
  1. Talec P, Gaujoux S, Samama CM. Early ambulation and prevention of post-operative thrombo-embolic risk. J Visc Surg. 2016;153(6S):S11-S14. doi:10.1016/j.jviscsurg.2016.09.002

  2. Lovich-sapola J, Smith CE, Brandt CP. Postoperative pain control. Surg Clin North Am. 2015;95(2):301-18. doi:10.1016/j.suc.2014.10.002

  3. Hoshikawa Y, Tochii D. Postoperative Atelectasis and Pneumonia after General Thoracic Surgery. Kyobu Geka. 2017;70(8):649-655.

  4. Tevis SE, Kennedy GD. Postoperative complications and implications on patient-centered outcomes. J Surg Res. 2013;181(1):106-13. doi:10.1016/j.jss.2013.01.032

Additional Reading
  • How Can I Recover From Heart Surgery? The American Heart Association. 2007.

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.