If you’re about to have an operation, your upcoming procedure will be one of the millions that take place in the UK every year. According to the most recent figures from the Health and Social Care Information Centre – now known as NHS Digital –there were 4.7 million surgical admissions in England alone during 2013/14 – an increase of 27 per cent compared with 10 years ago (i). The most common type of surgery is general surgery, with 1.3 million procedures, with trauma and orthopaedics following closely behind with 1.2 million.
The five most common procedures during that period were:
Hernia repair (120,198 procedures). Discover more on the treatment of hernias in our guide.
Hip replacement (115,758)
Knee replacement (81,590)
Gall bladder removal (78,497)
Preparing for your operation
How well you’ll recover from your surgery won’t just depend on what happens in the operating theatre and the care you receive afterwards. There are certain things you should do beforehand too. For instance, in order to play an active role in your recovery there are several important things you should try to do prior to having surgery, including:
Eating a healthy diet
Losing weight (if you need to)
Staying physically active
Learning to relax
Giving up or cutting down on smoking and alcohol
All of these things may help get you in the best possible shape before having surgery, which should help you get back to full health as quickly as possible after you’re discharged from hospital and help prevent common post-operative complications.
Many hospitals also require you to attend a pre-operative assessment one or more days before your operation. This helps the team that will be looking after you to get a clear picture of your health, medical history and your home circumstances (this may include having blood tests and MRSA screening, and in some cases fitness testing).
Just before going into hospital you may also be expected to stop eating and drinking – even water (you may be instructed to stop eating and drinking anything apart from water at a certain time, then given a time to stop drinking water too). It’s important to follow these instructions to the letter, as if your stomach isn’t completely empty when you’re having surgery you may vomit while under general anaesthetic.
About general anaesthesia
If your operation will be performed under general anaesthesia, it means you will be asleep and feel no pain or other sensations, as well as have no memory of what happened. Millions of general anaesthetics are given in UK hospitals every year – without them, most operations wouldn’t be possible, let alone safe.
There are a small number of serious complications associated with having a general anaesthetic, ranging from having a serious allergic reaction to the anaesthetic itself to death. However, fewer than between one in every 10,000 and one in every 20,000 people having a general anaesthetic experience a serious allergy-related complication (ii). Indeed, the risk of death caused by general anaesthesia is very rare (according to the NHS, it happens in one in around every 100,000 cases (ii) ). People also often worry that they may wake up in the middle of their operation, but this too is uncommon, with a report produced by the Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland finding one in 19,000 people are affected by accidental awareness during general anaesthesia (AAGA) (iii)..
Side effects after you come around from the operation, on the other hand, are more common – but thankfully they don’t usually last for long. Your anaesthetist will tell you about the possible side effects you may experience after having surgery, the most common of which include the following:
Nausea and vomiting
You may feel sick straight after having your operation but it shouldn’t last long – though some people may continue to feel sick for up to a day.
For most general anaesthetics you will have a rube placed in your airway to help you breathe, which may give you a sore throat afterwards. This can be treated with painkillers, and may last for just a few hours up to a few days.
Dizziness and feeling faint
Because having an anaesthetic can make your blood pressure drop, you may feel a bit woozy after your operation. You will be given medicines and fluids during your operation and in the recovery room afterwards to keep your blood pressure stable.
While the surgical team will do everything to keep you warm during and after your operation, you may start to shiver if you get cold (though you may shiver as a result of having an anaesthetic even if you don’t feel cold).
Several things can give you a headache after having an anaesthetic, including dehydration and the operation itself. If you get a headache afterwards it shouldn’t last for more than a few hours, and can be treated with painkillers. Discover more on the types of headache and their treatments.
Older people who have a general anaesthetic are more likely to experience confusion or memory loss after an operation. Thankfully these effects don’t usually last for long.
You may have difficulty urinating after an operation, but this also doesn’t last too long in most cases.
If you’ve had major surgery on your chest or abdomen, if you’re overweight, you’re aged 50 or older, you have a long-term medical condition or a weakened immune system, you’re more likely to experience a chest infection than others (iv). If this happens, you’ll be given antibiotics to treat the infection.
The majority of side effects of having an general anaesthetic, however, should get better in plenty of time before you’re discharged from hospital.
After the operation
When your operation has been completed, you’ll be moved to the recovery room where you may receive oxygen through tubes or a mask to help make you feel less groggy and woozy. Once your surgical team is happy that you’re recovering well from the operation, you’ll be moved back to your room or the ward. Once there, you’ll usually need to take pain relief medicine when the analgesic medication given to you as part of your general anaesthetic starts wearing off.
It’s only natural to want to lie in bed and sleep after an operation – you may, after all, feel tired or exhausted immediately afterwards and perhaps even for a few days. But it’s now thought that the sooner you start getting out of bed and moving around, the faster you’ll recover.
One of the things you medical team will want to make sure of is that you don’t develop a blood clot called a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) after having your operation.
Having surgery is one of the common causes of DVTs (v). This is because while you’re under anaesthetic your legs don’t move and your muscles are temporarily paralysed. This makes the blood flow in your leg veins slow right down, which can make a clot more likely.
Lying still in bed after your operation doesn’t help either, as your muscles need to be working to get the blood flow rate back to normal. However, your DVT risk should be assessed before your operation, and you may be given compression stockings to wear while you’re in surgery and recovering afterwards, and even when you return home. Getting up and moving around as soon as possible after your operation will also help to get the blood in your leg veins flowing normally again.
As well as walking, starting to eat and drink after your operation will help to speed up your recovery, so you can be discharged sooner rather than later.
Depending on the type of operation you had, you may also see a member of the hospital’s rehabilitation services – such as a physiotherapist – who will give you specific exercises to help you get your strength back (for example, you will be given exercises to help strengthen your knee muscles if you had a knee replacement operation).
Recovering at home
If you feel very tired when you arrive back home after having an operation, don’t worry – it’s normal. You may also need to take painkillers for a length of time. Your anaesthetist or one of the doctors or nurses at the hospital should explain what pain relief medicines you’ll need to take at home, and how often you should take them. In some cases, all you may have to take is over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol, which you can buy yourself. Otherwise, you may be given a supply of pain relief drugs at the hospital to take home with you.
It’s really important to understand exactly what you should be taking and when, especially if you’ve been given two or more different types of tablets. Ideally you should receive written information about any medication you should take at home. But it may also be useful to have a relative or friend with you when you’re being discharged, as they can take note of any instructions you’re given about medication too.
Your medical team will also make suggestions to help prevent a blood clot in your leg (DVT) after you leave hospital, such as not smoking and losing weight if you need to.
If you had stitches to close a wound during your operation, they may well be the dissolvable type – which means they’ll start to disappear on their own within a week or two. But if your stitches aren’t dissolvable, you’ll usually have to have them removed a week to 10 days after your operation (your medical team at the hospital should make an appointment for you to have your stitches taken out).
The medical team will also give you instructions about looking after your wound. Things you need to know include how long your dressings have to stay on and when can they replaced (and by whom), and at what point you can start having baths or showers again, if not immediately. Your nurse may also give you advice about what you can do to help reduce scarring.
Resuming normal activities
How soon you can start eating normally and exercising again will depend on the type of operation you have. With many operations you can start eating normally straight away (eating a healthy balanced diet is generally thought to help you recover more quickly). You’ll also be encouraged to do some regular gentle physical activities such as walking, and to keep doing any exercises your physiotherapist recommends.
If you want to return to more vigorous exercise at some point, it’s a good idea to check with your GP or surgeon first. You also need to know how soon you can start driving again, when you can start doing the housework and when you can go back to work (you should be given this information before you’re discharged from hospital).
Who should you call?
When you return home after an operation, it’s important to know who you should get in touch – and how – with if you develop any post-operative problems. This information should be given to you before you’re discharged from hospital. You should also be told about the things you should look out for that could be a sign of a problem, which include the following:
Persistent nausea and/or vomiting
Shortness of breath
Discharge from a wound, or increased swelling and/or redness
Natural post-operative recovery support
Another way to look after yourself after having surgery is to take natural remedies that could help speed up your recovery. Two such natural supplements are ginger and fish oils.
Ginger may be particularly useful if you experience nausea and vomiting after having a general anaesthetic. Ginger has been used for many years to treat nausea and vomiting, and studies confirm it may well be an effective natural treatment specifically for the nausea and vomiting experienced by some people after having surgery (vi). There is also some evidence to suggest ginger may be just as effective as conventional antiemetics to relieve post-operative nausea and vomiting (vii).
The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils, on the other hand, are widely believed to help relieve inflammation. One study, which investigated the effects of fish oils on cardiac surgery patients, even suggests those taking omega-3 supplements may spend less time in hospital and experience less post-operative atrial fibrillation (viii).
If you’re a vegetarian or vegan you can still benefit from an omega-3 supplement, thanks to the availability of products that contain the natural triglyceride (TG) form of omega-3, which is sourced from plant organisms called microalgae rather than fish oils.
Recovering from an operation, however minor or major, is an important process, so ensure you’re giving yourself enough time to rest and recover fully. To discover more helpful health articles just like this, feel free to visit our health library.
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/anaesthesia/
Available online: https://www.nationalauditprojects.org.uk/NAP5home?newsid=462
Available online: https://www.rcoa.ac.uk/system/files/06-PostopChestInfection2017.pdf
Available online: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/blood-clots/
Chaiyakunapruk. N, Kitikannakorn. N, Nathisuwan. S, et al. The efficacy of ginger for the prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting: a meta-analysis. Am J Obstet Gynecol 2006 ;194:95-9.
Lee YR. et al., Effectiveness of Ginger Essential Oil on Postoperative Nausea and Vomiting in Abdominal Surgery Patients. I J Altern Complement Med. 2017 Mar;23(3):196-200. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27841938
Phillips. S, Ruggier .R, Hutchinson. SE. Zingiber officinale (ginger)—an antiemetic for day case surgery. Anaesthesia 1993;48:715-7.
Bone. ME, Wilkinson. DJ,Young. JR, et al. Ginger root—a new antiemetic. The effect of ginger root on the postoperative nausea and vomiting after major gynaecological surgery. Anaesthesia 1990;45:669-71.
Toth B. et al., Ginger (Zingiber officinale): An alternative for the prevention of postoperative nausea and vomtiing. A meta-analysis. Phytomedicine. 2018 Nov 15;50:8-18. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30466995
Langlois. PL, Hardy. G, Manzaneres. W. Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids in cardiac surgery patients: An updated systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Nutr. 2017 Jun;36(3):737-746.Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27293143
Disclaimer: The information presented by Nature's Best is for informational purposes only. It is based on scientific studies (human, animal, or in vitro), clinical experience, or traditional usage as cited in each article. The results reported may not necessarily occur in all individuals. Self-treatment is not recommended for life-threatening conditions that require medical treatment under a doctor's care. For many of the conditions discussed, treatment with prescription or over the counter medication is also available. Consult your doctor, practitioner, and/or pharmacist for any health problem and before using any supplements or before making any changes in prescribed medications.
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.