How to prepare for a successful post-operation recovery
Patients can work with their health care providers to prepare for a smooth post-surgery recovery, says Dr. Tracey Childs, chief of surgery at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. For starters, consuming a healthy diet can be part of a pre-surgery regimen.
These days, patients and their health care providers can also use technology to prepare for a successful post-operation recovery. For example, on her smartphone Childs uses Twistle, an app that allows health care providers to communicate with their patients. Among other things, the app allows doctors and patients to communicate with text messages and photos. Starting two weeks before the date of surgery, the app provides patients reminders. Once the patient is home, he or she receives check-in questions. Doctors can get in touch immediately to resolve any alarming issues. “It keeps us connected and makes patients feel very cared for,” she says.
To prepare for a successful recuperation from surgery, health care providers recommend these 11 tips:
1. Drink clear liquids.
Surgery patients can typically consume clear liquids up to two hours prior to their procedure, according to guidance from the American Society of Anesthesiologists.
Examples of clear fluids that are safe to consume two hours before surgery include water, clear tea and fruit juices without pulp, says Lauren Sullivan, a registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition.
Being well-hydrated can help control nausea.
2. Consume enough protein.
Getting enough protein prior to your operation helps support your immunity, promotes wound healing and assists in maintaining muscle mass. All of that can help you get back on your feet sooner, Sullivan says.
“Protein is a fuel source for the body,” she says. “It supports tissue, muscles, organs, your immune system, hair, skin, nails and a lot of other things. Higher protein intake is needed prior to surgery to provide the body with the building blocks needed to heal and repair itself during recovery.”
A person anticipating surgery should eat at least 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. For example, a 150-pound patient would need to eat at least 82 grams of protein daily.
These are good sources of protein:
— Dairy products.
3. Get enough fiber and engage in healthy practices.
The combination of pain medications and reduced physical activity post-surgery can often cause constipation. Hospitals no longer typically require patients to have a bowel movement before being discharged, Childs says. “But you will be more comfortable and have a speedier recovery if you engage in activities (and practices) that promote intestinal motility before and after surgery.”
Such habits and activities include:
— Avoiding narcotic pain medicine.
— Eating plenty of fiber.
Vegetables, fruits, whole grains, yogurt and nuts are healthy foods with plenty of fiber.
4. Eat plenty of plant-based foods.
In addition to providing dietary fiber, vegetables and fruits contain lots of healthy nutrients, including compounds called phytochemicals that reduce the risk for inflammation, says Anne VanBeber, a professor in the department of nutritional sciences at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Such foods can also help keep you regular.
Plant-based foods are rich in anti-inflammatory compounds, which can help your body heal from surgery. For example, foods high in vitamin C will help to rebuild collagen, which is the building block of our skin, VanBeber says.
Healthy plant-based foods include:
— Bell peppers.
5. Avoid sugary foods.
Sugar is empty calories, Sullivan says. Excessive sugar intake may lead to insulin resistance or elevated blood glucose levels, which are associated with diabetes. Elevated blood glucose levels reduce healing and promote infection. “There is nothing nutritious about (sugar),” she says.
6. Stop smoking.
People who smoke right before their surgery have a much greater chance of developing a surgical site infection (at the point of incision) than nonsmokers, research suggests.
Smoking decreases the body’s blood flow, which can lead to complications such as:
— Heart attack.
Conversely, individuals who stop smoking have a better chance of a successful surgery, according to research published in 2020 by the World Health Organization, the University of Newcastle, Australia, and the World Federation of Societies of Anesthesiologists. The study “shows that every tobacco-free week after four weeks improves health outcomes by 19%, due to improved blood flow throughout the body to essential organs.”
Childs suggests talking to your health care provider about strategies to help you quit smoking. Some people use nicotine gum and/or the patch to help them stop. She notes that the American College of Surgeons has a program to help their surgery patients and their physicians collaborate to achieve this health goal.
7. Consider taking nutritional supplements.
Undergoing surgery disposes patients to immune dysfunction and places them at higher risk for infection, says Reema Kanda, a registered dietitian at Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Irvine, California. Taking nutritional supplements in the weeks before the operation can help patients load up on the nutrition they’ll need to recover. “You will find a line of surgical oral nutritional supplements on the market that contain omega-3 fatty acids derived from fish oils and the amino acid arginine that research is suggesting is of great benefit for the malnourished patient,” Kanda says.
Research suggests that omega-3s are beneficial for reducing inflammation during the recovery period, and arginine is important because it’s immune-enhancing and helps support metabolic processes that are important in tissue repair.
Before taking supplements prior to surgery, check with your surgeon, Childs advises. Some supplements can interfere with anesthesia and increase the risk of surgical complications, such as bleeding.
Supplements to avoid in high doses include:
— Ginkgo biloba.
8. Increase your physical activity.
“I’d like all patients to increase their physical activity level in the week before their surgery,” says Dr. Joyce Wahr, a professor in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
In the week before your surgery, make a point of walking at least 30 minutes every day, she says. If you have a favorite form of exercise, like swimming or playing tennis, continue your usual exercise regimen. “Sometimes people think they should become inactive because they’re about to have surgery,” Wahr says. “We encourage patients who are active to continue to be active, and those who have a low level of activity to increase it.”
Keeping your body in shape and accustomed to physical activity can help you bounce back after the operation. Physical inactivity following an operation can make some patients vulnerable to potentially deadly blood clots.
9. Attain a healthy weight.
Being at a healthy weight helps your chances of avoiding postoperative complications, Childs says. Research suggests that patients do better overall when they are at a healthy weight, according to a meta-analysis published in the Annals of Gastroenterological Surgery in 2018. “In general, obesity prolongs operative time,” researchers wrote. A body mass index of 30 or greater is considered to be in the obese range, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“As to short?term postoperative outcomes, obesity might be a risk for certain complications, depending on the procedure carried out.” It’s possible that obesity doesn’t impact “long-term surgical outcomes,” according to the study.
The research also notes that being underweight can be a risk factor for surgical complications. A BMI of less than 18.5 is considered to be in the underweight range, according to the CDC.
“The risk of wound infection decreases and the ability to move around and speed up your recovery is so much better when the patient is closer to an ideal body weight,” Childs says.
10. Continue taking your prescribed medications.
Unless your surgeon/physician advises you otherwise, keep taking your prescribed medications as usual, says Dr. Neel Anand, professor of orthopedic surgery and director of spine trauma at Cedars-Sinai Spine Center in Los Angeles. It’s important to keep in mind that your surgeon needs to be fully aware of all the medications you’re taking and the dosages.
“Though it is becoming less common, some patients think they need to halt all medications in order to prepare for surgery and it can have dire consequences,” Anand says. When your surgeon is fully advised of all of your health conditions and the medications prescribed to treat them, he or she is the best expert in deciding whether and how to alter your regimen for the safest and most effective outcome. “This is one decision you don’t have to make yourself. Leave it to the experts.”
11. Communicate with your surgeon.
Typically, before your procedure, your surgeon will provide instructions to help you prepare for your recovery. These days, such directions are often provided through a digital portal, but you can ask for a printed copy if that’s more comfortable for you, Childs says. You can go over the instructions with your surgeon or the physician’s staff to make sure you understand them.
At home, reread the instructions to make sure you understand them and call the doctor’s office if you have any questions. A patient engagement app, like Twistle, can come in handy for sending reminders and opportunities to check in with the surgeon. “Remember, not every surgery is the same nor are the postoperative instructions for recovery.”
To recap, here are 11 pre-surgery tips to boost recovery:
— Drink clear liquids.
— Consume enough protein.
— Get enough fiber and engage in healthy practices.
— Eat plenty of plant-based foods.
— Avoid sugary foods.
— Stop smoking.
— Consider taking nutritional supplements.
— Increase your physical activity.
— Attain a healthy weight.
— Continue taking your prescribed medications.
— Communicate with your surgeon.
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Update 09/09/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.