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If you’ve recently had surgery or are planning surgery in the near future, you may be wondering if air travel is safe.

Even minor surgical procedures present a certain amount of risk. But it’s also true that many people travel great distances to and from medical treatment without incident.

The fact is, there’s no one-size-fits-all recommendation on flying after surgery.

In this article, we’ll look at different types of surgery, individual risk factors, and other considerations for flying after surgery.

Every person and every type of surgery is different, so your doctor will make recommendations based on what’s right for you.

Here’s a general window of when it’s typically safe to fly after surgery:

Flying after any type of neurosurgery requires careful consideration.

For example, brain surgery can leave gas temporarily trapped in the brain. Unless imaging tests have been done that show that air and gas has been absorbed, you should wait at least 7 days before flying.

If surgery results in a cerebrospinal fluid leak, flying should be avoided until the leak is treated and resolved.

The risks of flying too soon after surgery can differ according to the type of surgery you’ve had and your specific health concerns.

Cardiac and vascular effects of general anesthesia typically don’t last long and won’t necessarily affect your flying risk.

Even if you haven’t had surgery recently, long-distance travel can increase the risk of blood clots in some people. Blood clots are most likely to form in deep veins in the legs, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

If you don’t have other risk factors, it’s not always dangerous to fly after surgery.

A study of anatomic pulmonary resection patients at the Mayo Clinic found no significant difference in the risk of complications between those who traveled by air compared to those who used ground transportation.

Other research has found that air travel within days of total joint replacement appears to be safe.

One risk factor for DVT is sitting in the same position for a long time. This is usually what happens when you’re on an airplane for several hours. This can slow your circulation and cause blood to coagulate in the veins in your legs.

These clots may dissolve on their own, but they can also break off and travel to your lungs, blocking the flow of blood. This potentially fatal condition is called a pulmonary embolism.

The risk of developing blood clots is higher if you’ve recently had surgery. Other risk factors for blood clots include:

The risk of developing blood clots also increases with age.

Individual risk factors must be weighed. For example, an airplane may have lower oxygen levels and lower barometric pressure. It’s not an issue if you’re healthy, but it’s potentially dangerous if you’ve just had surgery and:

  • have heart or lung disease
  • are anemic
  • are an older adult
  • are or have been a smoker

Every situation is different, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about when it will be safe to travel before you have your surgery.

Your primary care doctor or surgeon can evaluate your personal risks. With regard to travel, be sure to discuss:

  • your risk for blood clots
  • any medications you’re taking, such as blood thinners and whether adjustments are necessary
  • any supplies you should have, such as graduated compression stockings or supplemental oxygen

If you’ll need special equipment or assistance on your flight, you should also check with the airline before booking your trip.

When traveling soon after surgery, it may be helpful to have a travel companion who’s familiar with your situation.

How to lower your risk for blood clots

Sitting still for long periods can restrict blood flow and increase the risk of developing blood clots.

Here are a few ways to improve your circulation while traveling:

  • While seated, extend your legs straight out and flex your ankles so your toes point toward you. Hold for 15 seconds.
  • If space allows, pull one knee up toward your chest and hold for 15 seconds. Alternate and repeat 10 times.
  • Get up and walk for a few minutes every hour.
  • Skip alcohol but drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
  • Wear compression stockings to help keep blood from pooling in your legs.

It’s also important to be aware of any signs of blood clots, such as redness, swelling, tenderness, and pain.

The risk of developing DVT comes from lack of movement, whether you’re traveling by air, rail, or road. You’re also at an increased risk for DVT if you go home and spend too much time in bed.

You can lower your risk for DVT by moving your legs whenever possible. If you’re traveling by car, plan to stop and stretch your legs every hour. Once you’re home, avoid sitting for more than 4 hours at a time.

Flying a long distance just before major surgery may increase the risk of developing blood clots after surgery.

Your doctor can assess your individual risk factors for the type of surgery you’ll be having and suggest measures to lower your risk.

In many cases, it’s perfectly safe to fly after surgery, but it’s not advisable for everyone. It comes down to a case-by-case recommendation your doctor will make based on your personal risk factors.

It’s best to talk with your doctor before you book travel in the weeks before or following your surgery. They can advise you on the safest timeframe for air travel.