Postoperative Care

Written by Ann Pietrangelo
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on June 18, 2013

What Is Postoperative Care?

Postoperative care refers to the care you receive following a surgical procedure. This may include pain management and wound care. The type of postoperative care you require depends on the type of surgery you have.

Postoperative care begins immediately after surgery, for the duration of your hospital stay, and may continue after your discharge from the hospital. Part of postoperative care is awareness of the potential side effects and complications of your procedure.

Ask your doctor about postoperative care prior to your procedure so you can prepare as much as possible. Of course, those instructions may be revised based on the details of your surgery.

Postoperative Complications

Depending on the type of surgery you have, there are many potential complications in the postoperative period. General complications include infection, problems at the surgical site, and blood clots due to inactivity. Prolonged inactivity can also cause a loss of muscle strength.

Ask your doctor about the potential complications of your particular surgery.

Postoperative Care in the Hospital

Most of the time, anesthesia is used to put patients to sleep during surgery. Anesthesia can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Careful monitoring is necessary during and after the operation. After surgery, you will be moved to a recovery room where you’ll stay for up to two hours. You will feel groggy when you wake up. Some people also feel nauseated. 

While in recovery, your blood pressure, breathing, temperature, and pulse will be monitored. You may be asked to take deep breaths. Your surgical site will also be checked for signs of infection. Once you are stable you will be moved to a hospital room, if you are staying, or to another waiting room if you will be discharged on the same day.

Outpatient Surgery

After outpatient surgery, you may be released within hours of your procedure. Before discharge, you must be able to breathe normally, drink, and urinate. You are not allowed to drive immediately following the use of anesthesia, so you will need to arrange transportation home. You may feel groggy into the following day.

While in the Hospital

Postoperative care will continue if you are transferred to a hospital room. You will probably still have an IV in your arm, a finger device that measures oxygen levels in your blood, and dressing on your surgical site.

Depending on the type of surgery you had, you may also have a breathing apparatus, a heartbeat monitor, and a tube in your mouth, nose, or bladder. Your vital signs will continue to be monitored.

You may receive pain relievers through your IV, by injection, or orally. Depending on your condition, you may be asked to get up and walk around, with assistance, if necessary. This will decrease your chances of developing blood clots and will help you gain strength.

Your doctor will decide when you are ready to be released. If you know in advance that you will need ongoing care at home, it is best to make preparations ahead of time.

Questions to Ask Before You Go Home

Ask as many questions as possible prior to surgery and make sure you receive instructions upon your release from the hospital. Most hospitals provide written discharge instructions. Questions you should ask include:

  • How long will I be expected to remain in the hospital?
  • Will I need any special supplies or medications when I go home?
  • What side effects can I expect?
  • What things should I avoid?
  • Will I require a caregiver or physical therapist?
  • When can I resume normal activity?

The answers to these questions will help you make the appropriate accommodations. Keep emergency numbers handy and arrange to have someone help you, if necessary. Also, make sure you schedule a follow-up appointment with your doctor as advised.

Postoperative Care at Home

It is very important that you follow your doctor’s instructions after you leave the hospital. Take medications as prescribed and keep your aftercare appointments. 

Don’t overdo it if you’ve been instructed to rest, but don’t neglect physical activity if you’ve been given the go ahead. Resume normal activities as advised. Most of the time, a gradual return to your normal routine is recommended.

In some cases, you may not be able to care for yourself for a time after surgery. If so, you will need a caregiver to tend to wounds, prepare food, or help you move around safely. If you don’t have a family member or friend who can help, ask your doctor to recommend a caregiving service.

While recuperating, be sure to notify your health care provider if you develop a fever, increased pain, or bleeding at the surgical site. Don’t hesitate to contact your doctor if you have questions or aren’t recovering as well as expected.

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