Recovery from abdominal surgery can seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. Set yourself at ease by reading up and preparing for what you can do to improve the recovery process, as well as your overall health.
If you have recently undergone, or will be undergoing, abdominal surgery, then you probably have already spoken to your doctor about the possible risks, complications, and anticipated recovery time. If you haven’t done so already, make it a point to do this, because abdominal surgery is a physically demanding experience that requires a ton of rest and careful rehab to make a full recovery.
But, by knowing what to expect, you can plan ahead to get back to your old routine as quickly as possible. To help you with this, this article will cover general expectations for recovery and some key pointers for returning to exercise after abdominal surgery. We will start by reviewing what you should do before you undergo any type of abdominal surgery.
How to prepare for abdominal surgery
First of all, let’s take a moment to understand and appreciate how much we use our abdominal muscles (part of the core) on a daily basis. These muscles help us to get out of bed, stand, and lift something as light as glass of water. In addition to simple, everyday activities, the deep abdominal muscles play an important role in supporting the spine, internal organs, and pelvic floor.
Any surgery that requires an incision to be made through the abdominal muscles will affect the function and strength of that area. Thus, you’ll need to modify many of your activities for the first few weeks after surgery. Plan ahead by prepping freezer meals, stocking up on non-perishables, or having a family member or friend on hand, so that you don’t have to worry about laundry or cleaning.
Your surgeon may also recommend that you take some serious action towards improving your overall health before your surgery is even scheduled. The following recommendations have been proven to significantly improve outcomes after surgery.
1. Quit smoking
This should come as no surprise to you that smoking is bad for your health. What you may not know, however is that smoking impacts your body’s ability to heal, especially after surgery. Multiple studies have proven that quitting smoking is one of the best ways to ensure that you have an optimal recovery that is free from post-surgical complications. Smoking increases your risk of pulmonary complications, pneumonia, and wound complications. To avoid this, aim to quit smoking about six weeks before your surgery date.
2. Watch your blood sugar levels
For individuals with diabetes, keep an eye on your blood sugar levels, especially your A1C. Work with your primary care doctor or endocrinologist to try to get your levels below seven before you head into surgery. Frankly, you should take this recommendation seriously. It is a well-known fact that people with diabetes have impaired healing rates in comparison to that of a non-diabetic. This is due to the fact that high levels of sugar in your system create a breeding ground for infection and bacteria, which is a recipe for wounds and delayed wound closure.
Therefore, when it comes to abdominal surgery, your best chances for a less complicated recovery is to take control of your sugar levels before you even see your surgeon.
Just like smoking habits, sedentary lifestyles can affect your outcomes after surgery. Getting regular exercise, especially before abdominal surgery, can help you get back on your feet faster after surgery. You’ll also lower your risk for complications, like blood clots.
We understand that exercising may be the last possible thing that you feel like doing before surgery, especially if you are suffering from pain. However, your workouts do not have to be hard; even something like light intensity walking for 10-15 minutes per day will help immeasurably.
How to help healing after surgery after abdominal surgery
Once you have been discharged from the hospital, what happens next? Basically, this is when your recovery begins. Keep in mind that how you handle the first couple of weeks after surgery will set the stage for the rest of your recovery journey. Make no mistake about it, now is not the time to push yourself or ignore your surgeon’s instructions.
Use these guidelines when deciding whether or not to do something:
- How much energy will I exert doing this activity?
- Will my recovery be affected if I do or don’t do this task?
- Can this task be done later or by someone else?
For example, we all appreciate a spotless home, but now is not the best time to be mopping and scrubbing the floors. Save those tasks for another day, or delegate those activities to a family member or friend.
Now let's turn to some tips that address how to help healing and movement after abdominal surgery. Be sure to check with your surgeon as he/she may have restrictions that are specific to your surgical procedure.
1. Use pillows for bracing, moving, and rolling in bed
Depending on the size of your wound and type of incision, you may have to follow certain precautions when changing positions. One way to do this is to brace yourself with a pillow. Pillows will be your new best friend during recovery. Hug a pillow against your stomach when moving from the bed to a seated position or from sitting to standing. If you have to roll over, use the log roll method and hold a pillow against your stomach during the movement.
Expert tip: the log roll method is a technique that therapists often recommend after spine, chest, or abdominal surgeries. It involves moving your hips and shoulders together, like a log, when you are turning over in bed. You can also use the log roll method to move from your side to a seated position, which is less straining on the abdominal and back muscles. Roll onto your side, gently move your legs forward off the bed, and slowly push yourself into a seated position.
2. Remember to move every hour
Movement is critical to prevent blood clots, improve lung function, and prevent muscle spasms after surgery. At first, it may feel uncomfortable, but movement has been proven to aid the recovery process and prevent post-surgical complications. Don’t forget that overexerting yourself can do more harm than good, however. A leisurely stroll around the house or to the bathroom every hour is all it takes. This type of activity is also an excellent way to help regulate your bowel movements after surgery.
Depending on your surgery, your therapist may prescribe a walker for you to use at home. Please follow the recommendations of your therapist, and avoid the temptation to borrow your neighbor’s cane. Using a walker, as opposed to a cane, equally balances your weight and avoids one-sided muscle strain.
3. Avoid lifting and strenuous activity
This should go without saying, but you need to avoid all strenuous activity after abdominal surgery. Too much activity can slow your body’s natural healing process and even cause you to regress. Also, you will most likely have lifting restrictions for anything that weighs more than 5 lbs (~2 kg). This definitely includes things like: groceries, laundry baskets, small children, and pets.
Why are these restrictions important?
Your abdominal muscles play a huge role in protecting your back and internal organs while lifting or doing strenuous activity. After surgery, these muscles are weak from undergoing a major trauma, so it is important that you give them time to properly heal.
Expectations for recovery
Recovery will depend upon your particular surgery and individual risk factors, but everyone can expect to transition through certain stages of recovery In the beginning, your only tasks will be to rest, hydrate, and walk short distances (think: to the bathroom and back). After a few weeks, you will be able to gradually increase your walking distance, and your surgeon will most likely remove your lifting restrictions after 4-6 weeks. However, be warned that it will take months before you are able to resume your regular activities, especially if you are a fan of Kelli and Daniel’s HIIT workouts.
Take comfort in knowing that you can control many aspects of your recovery by planning, preparing, and understanding your role in the overall outcome. Be sure to follow your surgeon’s instructions closely, and ask for clarification from your medical and rehab team, if necessary.
We wish you luck and a full recovery, and Kelli and Daniel will be waiting for you to rejoin them once you’re ready. If you have general questions in the meantime, we’re always listening. When you've been cleared for light exercise, you might want to start out with a routine like this Postnatal Workout or Post Abdominal Surgery Workout.
Written for Fitness Blender by Kayla C, PT, DPT
Board-Certified Neurological Clinical Specialist
*The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.