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Recovering from surgery? Here’s what you need to know

It can involve anything from rest to physical rehabilitation

A woman wearing a mask lays in a hospital bed
A woman wearing a mask lays in a hospital bed

You’ve made it through your surgery and are headed home armed with your doctor’s ‘post-operative’ instructions. Following them will help your surgery recovery so you can get back to normal life as fast as possible.

According to nib clinical adviser Janelle Codd, it’s important to get in touch with your doctor or medical team if you’re unsure about any part of your surgery recovery plan. If you’re questioning why a doctor or nurse has given you a certain instruction, there’s likely to be a simple explanation.

“If they’ve said no showers and only baths, or not to swim for a period of time, it may seem silly, but there is generally a good reason for this,” Janelle says.

Related: What to expect from day surgery

Recovering from surgery tips

Recovering from surgery can involve anything from a few days’ rest to intense physical rehabilitation. Here are some general tips to keep in mind:

Keep an eye on any wounds

Firstly, inspect your wound to help spot any early signs of infection. An estimated 20% of healthcare-associated infections start at the incision site (or wound), with a significant number occurring after a patient leaves hospital.
“Check for wound ooze and if the colour surrounding the wound is starting to go from pink to red. Also, keep an eye out if it becomes hot and starts to swell,” Janelle advises.

If you’re worried about your wound in between appointments, you could take a photo of it on your smartphone and send it to your surgeon or GP.

Attend all appointments

Make sure you attend follow-up appointments – even if you’re feeling good.
“These appointments help your doctor or nurse to see that your procedure has worked as intended and that you are healing after surgery and not developing complications,” Janelle says.

Related: 7 things to do while recovering from surgery

A man wearing a cast on his leg and foot rests on a couch

Ask as many questions as you like

It’s really common to wind up wondering if something (say a twinge or a headache) is normal during your recovery time – and you’ll probably question whether it’s worthwhile ringing your doctor.

There are ways to clarify if what you’re feeling is normal, such as calling HealthDirect for advice. You could also try keeping a diary of minor aches and pains, noting how and when you’ve slept and what pain meds you’ve had, as it can be useful for spotting patterns or identifying causes.

Mistakes people make when recovering from surgery

Not taking pain relief

Some people worry about becoming addicted to pain medication, but Janelle says stopping medication too early could hamper your surgery recovery. “Pain can interfere with sleep, appetite, your ability to move around and participate in your rehabilitation.”

Not moving around

“As soon as you are cleared to move around, do it,” Janelle says. “Lying in bed can actually lead to other problems, such as blood clots, pressure ulcers, constipation and weakening of the muscles.”

Doing too much

People who try and progress too quickly may end up experiencing a setback while healing from surgery. They may hurt themselves or their wound by ignoring restrictions on physical activity, including heavy lifting.

Not eating or drinking enough

Even if you don’t have much of an appetite while recovering from surgery, food and fluid will keep you energised, hydrated and help your surgery recovery.

Related: 18 questions about your surgery you’ve been too embarrassed to ask

Signs you may need to see a doctor

If you have any concerns while healing from surgery, Janelle says it’s better to be “safe than sorry”, so contact your doctor or nurse. This includes when your pain increases to a level past what has been considered ‘normal’ post-surgery, or if you experience the following:

  • Ongoing nausea or vomiting, and an inability to eat or drink

  • An increase in pain that is not relieved with pain medication

  • Wound ooze that is making the dressing full or starting to come off

  • Swelling, pain, increased redness and temperature on your wound

  • Starting to feel unwell, are more lethargic or have a temperature

  • Shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness.

Do you have an upcoming procedure?

If you're an nib member heading to hospital soon, make sure you check out our Going to Hospital page. This tool gives you information on health insurance, tips on how to reduce any out-of-pocket expenses and helpful questions to ask your specialist. To find out the details of your current policy, chat with someone about your upcoming hospital visit or get some guidance, call us on 13 16 42.

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.

About Janelle Codd

Before joining nib as clinical advisor, Janelle was a nurse for 16 years at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Working as associate nurse unit manager in orthopaedics and trauma, Janelle considered it a privilege to be able to assist people at their most vulnerable. She holds a Master of Public Health and rates Dirty Dancing as her all-time favourite movie, claiming to have watched it at least 100 times – it’s all about Patrick Swayze and those arms, she reckons!