12 Surgery Preparation Steps

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November 8, 2017
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

Have you ever been told to avoid eating the night before a surgery? There’s a reason for that. Anesthesia can not only cause nausea, but freeze your larynx reflexes, and undigested food in your stomach can be aspirated into your lungs. Avoiding food before surgery is good advice, but I think it misses the larger point. Your diet and health habits weeks before and after a surgery will have more effect on the surgery outcome and your recovery. Here are 12 tips to maximize your chances of a successful surgery and recovery.

No matter what kind of surgery, no matter how major or minor, no matter your age, surgery can feel daunting. As much as I trust my comrades in the medical field, I still get butterflies before a surgery. For many, the need for surgery can feel like the loss of control. That’s especially true for surgeries that require anesthesia because patients have no idea how a procedure is going until it’s over.

It’s true, you can’t control everything surrounding a surgery. But you can control a lot more than you think. And what you can control can have a very positive effect on both the success of your surgery and the speed of your recovery.

Surgery Preparation Healthy Habits

Most surgeries are scheduled weeks or months in advance, giving you plenty of time to physically and mentally prepare. If surgery’s on your upcoming calendar, here are six pre-surgery health habits that I recommend to all of my patients.

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  1. Talk with your doctors about your medical conditions and medications, as they can have an effect on the surgery itself. For example, patients with high blood pressure before surgery are likely to see their blood pressure elevate during the induction of anesthesia. Some could even develop tachycardia, which is a rapid heartbeat. Apply that lesson broadly and inform the doctor of your entire medical history so that they are best prepared to avoid complications during the surgery.
  2. Cut the carbs from your diet, especially sugars and starches. Why sugars and starches? Sugar weakens your immune system by limiting its ability to fight bad bacteria. Here’s an example many of us can relate to at least one day of the year. Say it’s your birthday and you eat a big meal followed by cake and ice cream. How do you feel about 30 minutes later? That sugar high becomes a sugar crash! During the crash, your digestive system is overrun with sugar and other foods that are difficult to process. The good bacteria in your digestive tract has two main functions: breaking down food and warding off bad bacteria. It’s hard for them to fight bad bacteria when their hands are full trying to break down a large quantity of food with scarce nutritional content. Now multiply that over the course of weeks, months, or even years. This is why some people are chronically sick or have multiple health complications. Their sugar-loaded diet is handcuffing their immune system.
  3. Eat more fruits AND vegetables. It’s common sense that including more fruits and vegetables in your diet will deliver more vitamins and minerals. Those vitamins and minerals are essential for countless functions in your body, especially your immune system. Vitamin C is a natural antioxidant that fights the spread of toxins and infection. Vitamin K helps clot blood and helps delivers calcium to your bones. The list goes on. Finally, make sure you are eating a balance of fruits and Too much fruit means too much sugar. Vegetables are naturally low in sugar and usually deliver more vitamins and minerals than fruit without the carbs.
  4. Regular exercise before surgery has numerous benefits. First, it naturally regulates your heart beat and blood pressure, which reduces the chances of a negative reaction to anesthesia. Second, it can help flush toxins and bacteria out of your lungs and airways, which can reduce your chances of getting a cold, flu, or other respiratory illness. Exercise also strengthens antibodies and white blood cells, which are your body’s biggest line of defense against illness.
  5. Limit/stop drinking and stop smoking. Nothing is healthy about smoking, but it’s hard to stop cold turkey. Using a nicotine patch isn’t a long-term solution, but it can reduce the immediate negative effects that smoking can have on your body in the weeks before surgery. Drinking alcohol, even casual drinking, can have disastrous effects. For example, drinking was shown to have unpredictable effects on anesthesia and can cause other surgical complications such as excessive bleeding and liver damage. When doctors ask how much you drink or smoke, it’s vital that you answer with complete honesty.
  6. Learn about the surgery. You should trust that your doctors know what they are doing, but you should also know what they are doing. Know the answers to all the major questions about the surgery: What is the surgery? Why is it needed? What are possible risks and complications? What precautions are suggested? What is the expected recovery time? Are there alternative options? Ask all doctors and staff involved in the surgery. It’s your body. You have the right to know.

Post-Surgery Recovery Tips

Now that the surgery is over, it’s time to get yourself back to normal. Actually, you want to be better than normal! Here are six more post-surgery healthy habits that will help speed up your recovery.

  1. Continue that healthy diet. You’ve already done your body a favor by eating right before a surgery. Keep it up because now your body really needs vitamins and minerals to heal and recover. To help get a jump start on your post-surgery diet, stock up on healthy food a day or two before the surgery. That way, you have plenty of healthy food and drinks already at your disposal when you come home and have limited time and energy to shop. If the surgery requires a post-op hospital stay, give a shopping list (and a house key) to friends and family to help you out. Speaking of which…
  2. Lean on your support system. Your doctor may advise you to take it easy in the days after surgery. Still, some people are stubborn and operate as if they are the exception to the rule. It’s OK to ask for help. And it’s definitely OK to enjoy being pampered and cared for. It sure beats being alone, stubborn, and in pain!
  3. Wash your hands frequently. Germs cause infections and illness. The last thing you need when you are recovering from surgery is a cold, flu, or other infection.
  4. Laugh frequently and laugh hard. Surgery is scary. Recovery is hard. Take time to laugh. Not only does it cheer you up, but it’s good for you too! It curbs levels of stress hormones in your body. Stress isn’t in our heads. It can manifest physically by weakening your immune system. Before and after surgery, stock up on funny books and magazines. Record funny shows and movies. Subscribe to comedy video channels on YouTube.
  5. Continue to exercise. Your strength, flexibility, mobility, and endurance can be limited during surgery recovery. Going 100% is not advisable. Neither are high-impact exercises like running or other types of cardio. Look for low-impact exercises that are also accessible to many skill levels: biking, swimming, and even yoga. Always consult your doctor about exercising to ensure safety.
  6. Don’t forget about mental health. It’s perfectly natural to feel sad or anxious, especially when those thoughts revolve around surgery. It’s also common to feel hopeless or depressed after surgery because you are in pain and your quality of life isn’t as good as it used to be. Those are powerful reasons to attend to your mental health. Stay on top of your mental health by engaging in hobbies, visiting friends (or inviting them to visit), keeping active, and laughing a lot. If you feel you can’t shake the blues, seek professional help.

Better Health = Better Results

It’s a simple fact: people that practice healthy habits are far less likely to require surgery than those with unhealthy habits. Of those that do have surgery, their healthy habits set them up for positive results. Physical and mental preparation means you are likely to have a quicker recovery with less pain and fewer complications.

References

Ratini, Melinda, DO, MS. “Tips to Get Ready for Surgery.” WebMD. Published January 22, 2016.

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