Surgery takes its toll on you physically, emotionally, and financially. On top of worrying about the actual procedure, the uncertainty regarding the recovery period and outcome can be scary. Certainly, every patient wants to recover quickly and get back to his/her life with as few complications as possible. Although hospitals take steps to help patients recover as easily and quickly as possible, did you know there are also things you can do? So, how can you recover faster after surgery? What should you do before and after your procedure to make your recovery faster and easier?
Hospital ERAS programs help patients recover faster after surgery.
Many hospitals use a post-op recovery processes, called Enhanced Recovery After Surgery (ERAS). With these programs, patients experience faster recovery, shortened hospital stay and significantly fewer complications.
For example, a study evaluated the outcomes of cancer patients who had colorectal surgery and found that for patients with ≥70% adherence to ERAS interventions, the risk of death from cancer within 5 years was lowered by 42%.
Additionally, a meta-analysis of studies regarding the impact of ERAS programs on patients undergoing elective colorectal surgery found that ERAS programs:
- Reduced overall morbidity rates.
- Shortened lengths of hospital stays.
- Significantly reduced nonsurgical complications.
- Shorter hospital stays.
- Decreased postoperative pain and need for analgesia.
- Faster return of bowel function.
- Decreased complication rates.
- Decreased readmission rates.
- Increased patient satisfaction.
What are the key elements to an ERAS program?
Although there are many elements to ERAS programs, here is information on 3 key elements:
Encourage More Food and Fluids
The ERAS recommendations allow patients to eat up to 6 hours before surgery, and drink liquids with electrolytes and carbohydrates up to 2 hours before surgery.
In contrast, the traditional recommendation for patients did not allow food or liquids of any kind after midnight the night before an operation. This relaxation of food and liquid limitations gives patients energy through nutrition which helps the body recover faster after surgery.
Premedicate with Non-Narcotics
Providing narcotics after surgery can complicate recovery by causing dizziness and slowing bowel function. Additionally, narcotics are highly addictive, as we have seen in the growing nation’s opioid addiction crisis.
The ERAS recommendations include giving the patient pain medications before surgery and using a non-narcotic pain medication, given directly to the surgical site by catheter, after surgery.
ERAS recommendations state patients should get out of bed within 24 hours of surgery, since walking helps patients use their lungs, which can reduce the risk of pneumonia. Walking can also reduce the need for pain medication and improve bowel function.
For information on the many elements of ERAS programs, visit the ERAS Society website.
Steps you can take to recover faster after surgery.
Certainly, it’s great if you can use a hospital with programs in place to help you recover more quickly. Ask your surgeon (or prospective surgeon) if his/her hospital follows ERAS procedures. If the answer is “no”, ask your surgeon what steps the hospital takes to aid recovery.
Whether or not your hospital follows ERAS procedures, the following 14 steps will help you recover faster after surgery:
1. Follow your doctor’s orders.
Certainly, following your doctor’s orders is an important part of recovering. And that means following all recommendations, not just the ones that are easy or seem logical to you. If you think a particular instruction doesn’t make sense, don’t just disregard it. Instead, have a conversation with your doctor.
2. Don’t overdo it.
Although it can be tempting to push yourself to get back to your life as it was before your surgery, it’s better in the long run if you follow your doctor’s recommendations. Ask as many questions as you need to make sure you understand what you can and cannot do.
Importantly, don’t go back to work too early! Before your procedure, ask your doctor how much time you will need before returning to work. Then make any needed plans to stay home as long as he/she recommends. Lastly, don’t drive before your doctor’s recommended time period.
3. Don’t stay in bed all day.
Before you leave the hospital, ask your doctor how often you should get out of bed, for how long, and what activities are safe. As soon as your doctor recommends, get out of bed and move around, even if you feel exhausted.
Movement is critical because prolonged bed rest can lead potentially dangerous blood clots, life-threatening pulmonary embolisms, and pressure ulcers (bed sores). Additionally, too much time in bed can weaken your muscles, making it hard to get back to your old life.
4. Take your medications as prescribed.
If you don’t take your medications as prescribed, it can take longer to recover. Yet, research shows that after a hospital stay, medication errors due to confusion about medication changes are very common. Additionally, another study found that patients often don’t have their needed medications after hospital discharges.
For more information, read 10 Tips for Avoiding Medication Issues After a Hospital Stay.
5. Stay ahead of the pain.
Keeping your pain under control is very important so don’t be afraid of pain medication if you need it. In fact, if pain hampers your ability to sleep and move, it can take you longer to recover. For instance, if pain prevents you from coughing, you could develop pneumonia.
And if pain makes it impossible to get out of bed, your risk of pneumonia and dangerous blood clots increases. Waiting until your pain is severe can make it hard to reach a tolerable pain level.
Instead, control your pain by taking pain medication as prescribed. However, pain medications can be addicting, so talk to your doctor about their safe use.
And drink plenty of fluids when taking pain medications since they can cause dehydration and constipation.
6. Make and attend all recommended follow-up appointments.
Unfortunately, many patients skip some or all of their follow-up appointments. Although you may feel fine and assume you don’t need to see your doctor, each follow-up visit is important.
For starters, your doctor may find changes or issues that you cannot see or feel. And your doctor may want to do blood work, and/or look for signs of infection. Also, you may need medication adjustments.
And of course, your doctor will want to see if your procedure successfully treated your medical condition. Consider making these appointments before your procedure so you have one less thing to worry about when you get home.
7. Reduce your risk of infections.
Preventing infection is one of the most important things you can do to improve your surgical outcome. Infections, which can start in your incision, in your blood, or in the area surrounding your incision, can be hard to treat, and can slow your recovery time.
Additionally, you can develop an infection that seems unrelated to your procedure, such a urinary tract infection.
Therefore, to reduce your risk of infection to help you recover faster after surgery, follow these recommendations by Verywell Health:
Wash your hands – often.
The most important thing you can do to prevent infection is wash your hands frequently with soap and lukewarm water, for at least 30 seconds. This is also critical before you, or anyone else, cares for your incision, even if you or they plan to wear gloves.
Take your antibiotics as prescribed.
Since antibiotics can prevent infections, it’s essential to finish the entire prescription.
Keep your wound clean and dry.
Importantly, keep your wound clean to prevent infection. Ask your surgeon the best way to clean and dress your incision area and follow his/her recommendations carefully.
Also, be sure to let your incision to dry completely before you put on a clean and dry bandage. And only use creams or lotions that your doctor recommends.
Stop smoking – before surgery.
On top of all the serious health conditions caused by smoking, smokers are much more likely to have an infection during their recovery from surgery. Additionally, smokers have more scarring and heal more slowly. Stopping smoking before your procedure will help you recover faster after surgery.
If you leave your house, use antibacterial hand cleanser.
Everything you touch in public has the potential to spread an infection, so use an antibacterial hand cleanser frequently when you’re away from home.
8. Properly care for your incision.
As discussed, always wash your hands before touching your incision. But how should you keep it clean? Ask your doctor what steps to take and follow his/her instructions. Resist the temptation to scrub your incision with gusto.
9. Regularly inspect your incision for signs of infection.
Ask your doctor how to recognize signs of infection, and if physically possible, take a careful look at your incision (with clean hands) a few times a day. Importantly, notify your doctor as soon as you detect a potential infection.
10. Stay on top of your nutrition.
It’s important to eat a healthy diet that promotes healing. Your body needs the energy from food and the hydration from fluids to recover. Ask your doctor what foods and beverages you should include and what you should avoid.
Although pain, nausea and/or exhaustion can make it tempting to avoid eating and drinking, proper nutrition can help you recover faster from your surgery. If you are too nauseous to drink or eat, ask your doctor for suggestions.
11. Keep up with physical therapy.
If your doctor prescribes physical therapy, make every effort possible to go to the appointments and to do your recommended exercises at home.
12. Continue with prescribed breathing exercises.
For certain procedures, your doctor may give you breathing exercises to help your lungs recover from anesthesia by expanding your lungs and removing mucous. Don’t stop these breathing exercises prematurely.
13. Cough and sneeze carefully!
If you have an abdominal incision, you can harm your incision if you cough or sneeze the wrong way! Because new incisions aren’t very strong, it doesn’t take much to burst them open.
What should you do? Apply pressure to your incision area, with your hands or a pillow, when coughing or sneezing (and pooping). However, it’s important to realize that coughing can help prevent pneumonia, so don’t suppress a cough. If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor.
14. Know when you need to go to the emergency room.
Before you leave the hospital, ask your doctor what symptoms would warrant a trip to the emergency room. However, if you are concerned at any time, call your doctor, or go to an ER.
For more information on reducing the risk of surgical complications and harm, read these blog posts:
- Questions to Ask Before Surgery.
- Questions Seniors Should Ask Before Surgery.
- You Can Improve Your Surgical Outcome.
- Surgical Dangers – What You Need to Know.
- What is the Best Time of Day for Medical Care?
- How Safe are Surgery Centers?
NOTE: I updated this post on 5-11-22.