What to Expect When Recovering From Surgery

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

After Anesthesia Wears Off

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.

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.

Controlling Surgical Pain

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

Preventing Complications

Deep coughing, commonly referred to as "a cough and deep breathe," is encouraged at this time. Coughing expands the lungs and helps prevent pneumonia and other breathing difficulties patients face after surgery. Breathing treatments may be given to help open the lungs and make breathing easier.

Incision care is very important after surgery, as well. Depending on the nature of the surgery, the bandage may be changed frequently or only when ordered by the surgeon. It may be helpful for the patient to watch the staff change the dressing if the task will continue to be required after discharge.

A common result of pain medication and anesthesia is constipation and difficulty urinating, so clear fluids will be encouraged and a mild stool softener may be prescribed by the surgeon. If the patient is unable to empty his/her bladder, a catheter may be reinserted. In addition to temporary bladder paralysis, the digestive tract is often slow to “wake” from anesthesia. Once the digestive system is moving again the patient is typically allowed to begin a clear liquid diet and progress to a normal diet.

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

Being Discharged to Another Facility

Once the surgeon determines that the patient is well enough to be discharged, the patient needs to be assessed for his ability to return home. A patient may be transferred to another facility if his home cannot accommodate his needs after surgery, or the patient is too weak to care for themselves.

Going Home

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.

Activity at Home After Surgery

The level of activity permitted varies widely with 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 after surgery is a good indication of whether or not the patient is trying to do too much. Pain should be manageable with the prescribed pain medication. If an activity causes pain to skyrocket, the patient may be trying to accomplish too much too soon. Experiencing no pain is often an unreasonable expectation, but pain should be controlled enough to allow walking to the bathroom, sitting up in a chair, and coughing.

When to Call the Surgeon With Concerns

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 degrees
  • Black, tar-like stools
  • Pain that sharply increases, or becomes uncontrollable
  • Wound drainage problems; redness, bleeding or opening at the incision site
  • A decrease in ability to function (ex: cannot walk to the bathroom)
  • A change in level of consciousness or ability to wake
  • Persistent diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and/or vomiting
  • Inability to tolerate food or drink
  • Unexplained leg pain in one or both legs
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Article Sources

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