Optimize Your Post-Surgery Recovery: Advice from Doctors and Patients

The period right after after surgery can be one of the most challenging times a person might face in his or her life.

Even though the surgery itself might be live-saving, the postoperative weeks of recovery are painful, frustrating and boring as your body heals. Healing itself is a process that can’t be rushed; it takes as long as it takes, and if you try to do too much before you’re physically ready, you can actually cause damage.

That being said, there are ways you can optimize your recovery time, ensuring that you heal as well and as quickly as possible.

Below are 20 tips directly from surgeons, chiropractors and other healthcare professionals that should make your post-surgery healing time more manageable and more effective.

For motivation, too, we have included some inspirational stories from patients because it is important for all patients to know that they do not walk this postoperative road alone.

 

Eating: You Get Out What You Put In

ER physician and co-host of The Doctors TV show Dr. Travis Stork says diet definitely matters when it comes to a speedier recovery from surgery. If your surgery is planned, and you’ve got weeks or even months before the procedure, take that time to get your diet in order.

Drink lots of water and concentrate on eating lean protein, fruits and vegetables. “Protein is key for cell recovery, while antioxidants promote healing and boost your immune system by fighting free radicals, thus reducing the odds of a postoperative infection,” Dr. Stork says.

No other change to your diet is necessary — that includes taking any supplements, unless prescribed by your doctor. In fact, Dr. Stork warns: “Some [supplements], like omega-3 fatty acids and ginseng, may cause surgical complications such as increased bleeding; others may interfere with anesthesia.”

Livestrong’s Joshua McCarron reminds us that we should be chowing down on foods that promote healing both before and after surgery. His list includes:

  • egg whites
  • walnuts
  • almonds
  • brown rice
  • fish
  • and chicken.

Carry Porter, an athlete who blogged about her recover from ACL surgery, actually attributes her quick recovery in part to flooding her body with nutrients from juicing.

Optimize Your Post-Surgery Recovery: Advice from Doctors and Patients

Caroline Jordan, a lifestyle coach and fitness instructor, fully agrees with the connection between a healthy diet and recovery.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a joint replaced, a hysterectomy or a bypass operation, the body requires extra nutrients to heal, so focusing on nutrition can mean the difference between bouncing back and a lengthy recovery,” she writes.

The difference is in the quality of the food you choose to eat. “A low quality diet that has few whole, natural foods is going to work against healing, and a nutrient-dense diet filled with whole, natural foods is going to be supportive.”

Dr. David L. Katz supports that position, and he points out that consuming lean proteins becomes especially important after surgery, as “certain amino acids seem to help wounds heal faster.”

“Some studies suggest that vitamin C and zinc can also help you mend; drinking a glass of orange juice and eating the daily recommended amount of fruit and produce should provide all the C you need, while a fortified breakfast cereal is an easy way to get zinc,” Dr. Katz writes.

And if you take multivitamins, he recommends something with B12 and iron, “both of which aid bone marrow in forming new blood cells.”

 

Talk To Your Doctor

When it comes to supplements, cardiologist Dr. Stephen Sinatra says it’s important to ask your physician or surgeon how long before the procedure you need to stop taking them as well as how long you should wait post-operatively before taking them again.

Some foods, medicines and supplements act as blood thinners. These include garlic, vitamin E, ginkgo biloba and aspirin.

Others, such as St. John’s wort, can interact with anesthesia, Dr. Sinatra warns. “Further herbs singled out by anesthesiologists include ephedra (also called Ma Huang), feverfew, goldenseal, garlic, ginseng, ginger, licorice and valerian.”

 

Be Your Own Blood Bank

Medical researcher, biochemist and chiropractor Dr. David Williams says another thing you might want to talk to your doctor about well before surgery is banking your own blood.

Called autologous transfusion, it’s something he’s been recommending as a “pre-surgery precaution for nearly 25 years,” and he thinks it’s still good advice.

“Donor blood still contains other various pathogens, because at any given time the body is fighting some form of infection,” he writes. “For some people it could be simply from a cut on the finger, gum disease, a cold, a chronic sinus problem, et cetera. But in other people the pathogen might be more virulent.

Dr. Williams says that you need to plan at least a few months ahead to bank your own blood, as you need time between your last donation and the surgery itself in order to replenish blood cells.

Optimize Your Post-Surgery Recovery: Advice from Doctors and Patients

 

Walking Before and After Surgery

Simply walking every day for a week before your surgery can be important. Cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Mehmet Oz, of The Dr. Oz Show, says he’s found just that one thing can “help you recover significantly faster after surgery.”

“Walking is especially important after your procedure; thousands of patients every year are infected with pneumonia because they don’t get enough movement; that lets bacteria-infested mucus accumulate in their lungs,” he says. “Walking helps your lungs get rid of the bad stuff.”

 

The Type of Surgery

WebMD has two timelines you should have a look at, each a slideshow:

While these can provide a good general overview on what to expect, each patient, each case and each surgery is unique and so is the recovery timeline and individual experience. Sometimes, recovery takes much longer for one patient than it does for another, even though they both had the “same” surgery.

Thomas San Giovanni, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Baptist Health, gives the example of ankle surgery, which can take either several weeks or several months to recover from. He says that the length of recovery all depends on how involved the condition and the resulting surgery was.

Orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist Dr. David Geier agrees that the type of surgery obviously impacts recovery. And the more you know about what your specific procedure entails, the more prepared you’ll be:

“A huge number of people who undergo meniscus surgery claim to have had a meniscus repair (meaning, sewing the meniscus back together). Instead, they likely had a partial meniscectomy (trimming part of the meniscus out). It might not seem like a big distinction, but it does have a large impact on postoperative weight bearing restrictions and potential long-term degenerative changes of the knee.”

Optimize Your Post-Surgery Recovery: Advice from Doctors and Patients

Similarly, recovery from hip replacement surgery may be longer and more involved than from an alternative procedure that is sometimes used, especially for younger patients, called hip resurfacing. The major difference between the two is the amount of bone that is preserved.

Vicky Marlow, a patient advocate for hip resurfacing and owner of HipResurfacing.com, says it’s not just the type of surgery, but your own condition that affects your recovery. Factors include “your age, your athletic condition going into surgery, how long you have limped and compensated for the bad hip, your muscle mass or loss of it due to the bad hip, how your body deals with trauma, how your body handles anesthesia and pain meds, successful placement of your resurfacing device, PT and sticking to doing the instructed exercises religiously, walking and listening to your body.”

Dr. Thomas Schmalzried, Medical Director of the Joint Replacement Institute in Los Angeles, also points to the patient as the biggest variable in any recovery: “‘Fully recovered’ is also patient dependent. Is the patient a homemaker or a professional athlete? I place no restrictions on my patients after surgery.”

 

Inspirational Stories From Real Patients

Kallos Tamas of Romania posted his inspirational video of recovery after knee surgery.

Another video, this one by a registered nurse and licensed massage therapist, Donovan Gow, who had ACL surgery six weeks prior to filming.

He advises getting off pain medication as soon as you can so you’re able to move as much as possible. Controlling any swelling should be your first priority, and to do this, Donovan recommends frequent icing as well as elevating and wrapping.

He’s another advocate of increasing protein intake for tissue repair and making sure you get plenty of Vitamin C.

But he warns other knee surgery patients to take it easy on anything that involves the hamstrings, like bending over to pick things up.

Professional dancer Rachel Whiting writes of her healing journey from dance injury and hip surgery to full recovery.

Before anything else, Rachel did extensive research, and she was able to find a surgeon who was using arthroscopic reconstruction instead of a full hip replacement. She also discovered testimonials from other professional dancers who were able to achieve a “fully functional career recovery” after the same surgery and rehab.

“The body is a remarkable creation which is receptive to healing,” she says. “It is designed for movement.”

More powerful stories of recovery come your way from TED. These stories aren’t limited to recovering from elective surgery; they are how people came back from or succeeded in spite of sudden accidents, life-altering events or conditions.

Like athlete Janine Shepherd, whose back and neck were broken when she was hit by a truck while training.

And like Ed Gavagan, who was stabbed and left for dead in New York City. “Everyone was so sure he was going to die that his case was assigned to homicide detectives to save paperwork,” the video says.

Then there’s a surgeon’s recovery story. The surgeon and blogger known as The Skeptical Scalpel had to go under the knife to repair a tear of his right rotator cuff, with recovery estimated at about four months total, six weeks of that in a sling.

It took him the full six weeks to say he was feeling “much better,” and it seemed that the postoperative experience affected his “usually sunny disposition” … so much that his wife, a nurse, now has a recommendation for insurance providers.

“As part of the postop care after rotator cuff surgery, the insurance company should include coverage for marriage counseling,” she says.

 

images by:
Phalinn Ooi
Steven Depolo
Oliver Symens
Ted Eytan