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After surgery

What to expect after your operation.

When you wake up from your operation

You usually wake up in the recovery unit before moving back to your ward.

After a big operation, you may wake up in intensive care (ICU) or a high dependency recovery unit. You usually move back to the ward within a day or so.

In ICU you have one to one nursing care. And in the high dependency unit you have very close nursing care. Your surgeon and anaesthetist also keep an eye on your progress.

These units are busy and often noisy places that some people find strange and disorienting. You'll feel drowsy because of the anaesthetic and painkillers.

Tubes and drains

When you wake up, you’ll have several tubes in you.  This can be frightening, so it helps to know what they’re for.

You may have:

  • drips (intravenous infusions) to give you fluids until you are eating and drinking again
  • a tube into your bladder (catheter) to measure how much urine you pass
  • an oxygen mask on your face 
  • an electronic pump to control the medicines through the drip

For some types of surgery you might have a wound drain to drain any blood or fluid. You may need a nasogastric tube down your nose and into your stomach to drain it and stop you feeling sick. 

Your wound

The wound you have after surgery depends on the type of operation you had.

You may have a wound that runs vertically, up and down your lower abdomen. This is called a mid line incision. Or you may have a wound that runs from right to left across your lower abdomen (your bikini line). This is called a transverse incision. Your surgeon will talk to you before your operation about the type of cut they are likely to do and why.

You might have 3 or 4 small wounds in your abdomen if you had keyhole (laparoscopic) surgery.

You may have a dressing over your wound after the operation. After a couple of days your nurse takes the dressing off and cleans the wound. They are likely to leave the dressing off unless the wound is oozing. If you have wound drains, these stay in until they stop draining fluid. They can usually come out about 2 to 7 days after your operation.

You may have stitches that gradually dissolve, so you don't need to have them taken out. Other types of stitches or clips stay in for at least 7 to 10 days. Your nurse may take them out before you go home. Or a nurse at your GP surgery or a district nurse can usually remove them.

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

You are usually able to drink and eat as soon as you feel up to it. This may be a few hours after surgery, as long as you don't feel sick. Your nurse will tell you when you can start drinking and eating.

Getting up

Getting up and walking is likely to be very difficult at first. Moving about helps you to get better, but you need to start gradually. Your nurses will encourage you to get out of bed and sit in a chair as soon as possible, usually a day or two after surgery. They will help you with any drips and drains.

The physiotherapist might visit you every day after your operation to help you with breathing and leg exercises.

Over the next couple of days, the tubes, bottles and bags will be taken away. Then it will be much easier to get around.

Going home

You may go home between 1 and 7 days after surgery, depending on the type of operation you had and your recovery.

After this type of abdominal surgery, you need to rest for about 4 to 6 weeks after you come out of hospital. Until this time, you will not be able to:

  • do heavy housework, such as vacuuming
  • carry heavy bags of shopping or washing
  • drive (after keyhole surgery you can drive after 2 to 4 weeks) 

This is because all these activities put pressure on your abdominal muscles and skin. These need time to heal. It will take longer to get over your operation if you put too much strain on the area. You will gradually be able to increase the amount you can do. How long this takes varies depending on the type of operation you had. Women who have keyhole surgery generally recover quicker than those having open surgery. Your surgeon will advise you about this.

A short walk every day is a good idea. You will get a bit of fresh air and you can gradually go further as you regain your strength. Do take it easy at first though. 

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 concerns you have about your progress.

Last reviewed: 
19 Sep 2017
  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, 9th edition
    L Dougherty and S Lister (Editors)
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2015

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