7 Things Patients Should and Shouldn't Do After Surgery

No matter what type of operation you have, it's important to remember that surgery is surgery. While we tend to believe that a "minor" surgery means we have less to worry about compared to a "major" one, the rules invariably remain the same.

In the end, any procedure in which an incision and anesthesia are involved carries a risk of complications. Chief among these are infections which occur in around 5% of all surgeries and up to 33% of all abdominal surgeries, according to a 2011 study from the University of South Florida Department of Colon and Rectal Surgeries.

Doctors pushing patient in hospital bed
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By following a few simple do's and don'ts, you can avoid turning a simple surgical procedure into a major medical crisis.

Don’t Drive Too Soon

You may think the no-driving rule following surgery is just about anesthesia. And while, yes, a person's motor skills and judgment can be seriously impaired by anesthesia and pain medications, they are only part of the problem.

If you have an incision wound, however big, you are not going to do it any good by moving around. This includes steering your car, shifting gears, and pressing your accelerator.

All of these things can disrupt a wound as well as the sutures holding it in place. Imagine what might happen if you have to hit the brakes quickly or, worse yet, are unable to hit the brakes quickly enough.

Ask a friend or family member to drive you home following surgery, or use a taxi or rideshare service if your surgery center allows that. If you live alone, it would also be a good idea to ask someone to stay with you a day or so to help you if there are any problems.

Do Use Pain Medication as Directed

Some people don’t like the idea of pain medication because it makes them too groggy and unable to function properly. And while this might certainly be the case, avoiding painkillers can actually make you sicker longer.

Why? Because people in pain will invariably move around less than those who have good pain control. Moving less translates to a higher risk of blood clots, especially in the legs.

People in pain also don’t breathe as deeply and will do everything to avoid coughing, which can increase the risk of respiratory infections and pneumonia following surgery.

Don’t Lift Until You're Told It's OK

Say your healthcare provider tells you not to lift anything greater than 15 pounds for six weeks, but after a week you feel great and can lift 15 pounds with no problem. You must be a fast healer, right?

Wrong. Just because you're physically able to lift, push, or pull, you shouldn't ignore that fact that you have a wound that needs healing. Even laparoscopic ("keyhole") surgeries take at least five to ten days to heal adequately, while larger abdominal ones can take two months or more.

Excessive straining of any sort (including working out at the gym) may not only cause wounds to open, but it can also invite infection into the areas of broken or disrupted skin. Make sure to take all the rest you need and then some.

Do Keep an Eye Out for Infection

Surgical incisions are at high risk of infection simply by the fact that the skin is broken. To avoid infection, you will need to keep the wound dry, change the dressing as per your healthcare provider's instruction, and be able to tell when a wound is not healing properly.

After surgery, you may experience soreness, itching, tingling, and numbness around the incision site or notice some swelling or a little oozing. These things are normal and shouldn't cause concern.

On the other hand, call your healthcare provider if there is pus, excessive bleeding, fever, persistent pain, increasing swelling or redness, or any changes in odor emanating from the wound. These are often signs of a developing infection that needs immediate attention.

Don’t Become Constipated

If you had gastrointestinal surgery or are taking prescription pain relievers, you are at an increased risk of constipation. Constipation should never be considered "no big deal."

Not only does it cause unnecessary discomfort, but it can also get progressively worse if you are less able to push or use your lower abdominal and pelvic muscles. Straining, meanwhile, puts added stress on the incision itself.

Speak to your healthcare provider and get the recommended stool softeners or laxatives needed to get you right. In addition:

  • Be sure to increase your water intake while cutting back on the caffeine.
  • Adding fiber to your diet increases the weight of your stools and helps them move through the intestines.
  • Make sure your diet includes fresh fruits and vegetables each day as well as whole-grain bread and cereals.

Do Take Your Full Course of Antibiotics

Always take your medications as prescribed, especially your antibiotics. Just because your incision looks good and you're feeling great, don't assume that means you can save the rest of your antibiotics for future use. It doesn't work that way.

Stopping antibiotics prematurely greatly increases your risk of developing antibiotic resistance—and not only that drug but to others in its class. If this happens, it may mean that the next time you need antibiotics, they won't work as well or at all.

Don't Smoke

There are no two ways about it: smoking hurts healing. The simple fact is that your wound will heal faster and develop less scarring if you avoid cigarettes during your recovery.

According to research from the Copenhagen Wound Healing Center at the University of Copenhagen, smoking reduces the amount of oxygen able to reach a wound while interfering with inflammatory cells meant to speed healing.

In the end, smoking can increase the healing time of surgical wounds, often by weeks, while raising the already-high risk of post-operative infections and pneumonia.

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.
  1. Krieger BR, Davis DM, Sanchez JE, et al. The use of silver nylon in preventing surgical site infections following colon and rectal surgery. Dis Colon Rectum. 2011;54(8):1014-9. doi:10.1097/DCR.0b013e31821c495d

  2. Disilvestro KJ, Santoro AJ, Tjoumakaris FP, Levicoff EA, Freedman KB. When can I drive after orthopaedic surgery? A systematic review. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2016;474(12):2557-2570. doi:10.1007/s11999-016-5007-9

  3. Griffith HW, Moore SW, Yoder K. Complete Guide to Symptoms, Illness & Surgery. TarcherPerigee; 2012.

  4. Garmpis N, Dimitroulis D, Garmpi A, et al. Enhanced recovery after surgery: Is it time to change our strategy regarding laparoscopic colectomy?. In Vivo. 2019;33(3):669-674. doi:10.21873/invivo.11525

  5. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Surgical Site Infections.

  6. Celik S, Atar NY, Ozturk N, et al. Constipation risk in patients undergoing abdominal surgery. Iran Red Crescent Med J. 2015;17(6):e23632. doi:10.5812/ircmj.23632

  7. Portalatin M, Winstead N. Medical management of constipation. Clin Colon Rectal Surg. 2012;25(1):12-9. doi:10.1055/s-0032-1301754

  8. Sørensen LT. Wound healing and infection in surgery: the pathophysiological impact of smoking, smoking cessation, and nicotine replacement therapy: a systematic review. Ann Surg. 2012;255(6):1069-79. doi:10.1097/SLA.0b013e31824f632d

Additional Reading
  • Krieger B, Davis D, Sanchez J, et al. The Use of Silver Nylon in Preventing Surgical Site Infections Following Colon and Rectal Surgery. Dis Col Rect. 2011;54(8):1014-9. doi:10.1097/DCR.0b013e31821c495d

  • Sorenson L. Wound Healing and Infection in Surgery: the Pathophysiological Impact of Smoking, Smoking Cessation, and Nicotine Replacement Therapy: A Systematic Review. Ann Surg. 2012;255(6):1069-79. doi:10.1097/SLA.0b013e31824f632d

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.