Decorative image

After surgery

Waking up after an operation can feel quite strange. You might feel very confused or disorientated. You'll feel drowsy because of the anaesthetic and painkillers. This is normal. But knowing what to expect can help.

You might wake up in the recovery room close to the operating theatre. A nurse will look after you and monitor you closely. When you first wake up, you will have a little clip on your finger called a pulse oximeter. This measures your pulse and blood oxygen levels. You might also have an oxygen mask on for a while.

Your nurse will measure your pulse and blood pressure often during the first few hours.

If you've had a big operation, you might wake up in intensive care or a high dependency recovery unit. These are places where you can have one to one nursing care. And your surgeon and anaesthetist can keep a close eye on your progress. As soon as your doctors are sure you are recovering well, you will go back to the ward.

Tubes and drains

Depending on the operation that you have had, you may have several different tubes in your body. This can be a bit frightening. But it helps to know what they are all for.

You will have:

  • drips (intravenous infusions) to give you blood transfusions and fluids until you are eating and drinking again
  • a tube down your nose and into your stomach (nasogastric tube) to drain fluid and stop you feeling sick
  • one or more tubes, called wound drains, coming out of your tummy (abdomen) near your wound
  • a tube into your bladder (catheter) to collect and measure your urine
  • a very thin tube called a CVP line into your neck or arm to measure your blood pressure

Painkillers

It’s normal to have pain for the first week or so. You have painkillers to help.

Tell your doctor or nurse as soon as you feel any pain. They need your help to find the right type and dose of painkiller for you. Painkillers work best when you take them regularly.

Immediately after surgery you might have painkillers through a drip into the bloodstream that you control. This is called patient controlled analgesia (PCA).

Or you might have painkillers through a small thin tube that is put into your back. This tube is connected to a pump that gives you a constant dose of painkiller. This is called an epidural.

You get painkillers to take home. Follow the instructions your nurse gives you about how often and when to take them. Contact your doctor if you still have pain or if it gets worse.

Eating and drinking

After surgery to any part of the digestive system, the bowel usually stops working for a while. Until it starts up again, you will not be able to eat or drink anything. The time it takes for you to be able to eat and drink again depends on how much surgery you have had.

If you have only had your gallbladder removed, you will probably be able to eat and drink within 24 hours. But if your surgery involved your liver, pancreas, stomach or bowel then you will not be able to eat or drink for at least a few days.

If you were ill for some time before your surgery, you may be very run down and malnourished. You may need extra help with nutrition to start with, so your nurse might give you a white liquid called TPN (total parenteral nutrition) through your drip. It contains all the protein, fat and carbohydrates that your body needs.

Once your bowel starts working again, you will be able to try sips of fluids. Gradually the amount you are allowed to drink will increase. And soon you will be able to try other fluids as well as water. Once you are able to drink without being sick, your drip and nasogastric tube can come out. You will then be able to start eating a light diet.

Your diet might change permanently and you may not be able to cope with large amounts of food and drink any more. The hospital dietitian will be able to advise you about this.

Your wound

When you wake up you will have a dressing on your wound. Your nurse will leave this on for a couple of days. Then they will change the dressings and clean the wound.

You will have the wound drains in place until they stop draining fluid. Your nurse will change the bottles attached to them every day. Wound drains can usually come out about 3 to 7 days after your operation.

Most surgeons now use stitches that dissolve away by themselves once your wound has healed. But if you have stitches or clips that need to be removed, they will be left in for at least 10 days and taken out before you go home.

Sometimes, if the wound is not quite healed, but you are otherwise well, you can go home with the clips or stitches in. You will need to go back to the hospital to have them taken out. Or a district nurse may visit you at home and take them out there.

Getting up

This may seem impossible at first. Moving about helps you to get better but you will need to start very gradually. Your physiotherapist will visit you every day after your operation to help you with your breathing and leg exercises.

Your nurses will encourage you to get out of bed and sit in a chair 1 or 2 days after your surgery. They will help you with all the drips and drains.

Over the next couple of days, your tubes, bottles and bags will be ready to come out. Then it will be much easier to move around.

Making progress

After a few days you will begin to be up and about. Gradually you will start to feel better. Soon you will be able to eat more. At first you will find it easier to have lots of very small meals rather than 3 large meals a day. The hospital dietitian will give you help and advice with managing your diet.

It is natural to feel tearful and very sad sometimes after this type of surgery. For most people, this is at its worst about 4 or 5 days after the operation. It helps to be patient with yourself while you recover. You will need a lot of support from your doctors and nurses, family and friends.

Find out about possible problems after surgery

You’ll have follow up appointments to check your recovery and sort out any problems. They‘re also your opportunity to raise any worries you have about your progress.

Last reviewed: 
20 Jan 2020
  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (9th edition)
    L. Dougherty and S. Lister
    Wiley Blackwell, 2015

Information and help