Preparing for your surgery and recovery

Expert reviewer, Dr Helen Hartley, Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
Next review due October 2023

If you’re waiting to have surgery, it’s a good idea to use this time to plan and prepare properly. What you do now can have a big impact on how well you get through your treatment. Here we give lots of advice and tips on how to prepare for your surgery, and what you can do to help yourself recover well afterwards.

Being as healthy as possible before surgery

Making sure you’re in the best possible health before your surgery can make all the difference to the success of your operation and your recovery. You’ll also be helping to improve your health over the long term. Here are some important things to focus on.


There are lots of good reasons to stop smoking, but preparing for an operation should be a strong incentive to quit. If you smoke, you’re at greater risk of problems before, during and after surgery. For instance, smokers are much more likely to get heart and lung complications, and wound infections after surgery. Stopping smoking before your surgery may reduce the length of time you need to stay in hospital, as well as improve how quickly your body heals. For the most benefit, you should stop smoking two months before your surgery, but stopping for even a few weeks or days will help. Contact the free NHS Stop Smoking service, or ask your pharmacist or GP surgery for advice and support.

Diet and weight

Eating a healthy diet before your operation will help prepare your body to cope with the surgery and to repair itself afterwards. If you’re very overweight, this puts you at greater risk of various complications from surgery and anaesthesia, including breathing problems, heart and lung complications and wound infections. Losing excess weight before your operation can help to reduce many of these risks. It will also reduce your risk of further health conditions in the long term. Your GP should be able to signpost you to local services that can offer support with weight loss.


Drinking a lot of alcohol can bring health risks, and it’s more important than ever not to drink to excess in the lead up to an operation. Alcohol can affect your body’s ability to heal – which will be really important for your recovery after your surgery. And if you’re a heavy drinker, you’re more prone to infections and other complications after an operation. The recommendations for everyone are to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. If you think you might be going over that limit, now’s the time to start thinking about cutting down.

Improving your fitness

Being physically active brings many health benefits. If possible, it’s especially important to keep active in the lead up to your surgery, or to increase your activity levels if you’re not currently very active. The fitter you are, the better your heart and lungs will be able to cope with the demands of surgery and recovery afterwards.

Aim to be active for about 30 minutes a day. Any activity that gets you out of breath will help. You could try brisk walking or cycling, taking the stairs instead of the lift, or even dancing to your favourite music at home. These will help you to maintain your muscle and bone strength too. You may want to use online workouts to keep you active at home. If you’re not used to being very active, it’s best to talk to your doctor before starting strenuous exercise.

Care of your teeth

If you have problems with your teeth such as loose teeth or crowns, it’s a good idea to visit your dentist before your operation. This may help reduce the risk of damage to your teeth during your anaesthetic.

Keeping long-term conditions under control

Your general health can affect how well your body copes with an anaesthetic, with surgery, and with your recovery afterwards. So, if you have a long-term medical condition, it’s important to make sure it’s as well controlled as possible in the weeks before your surgery.

Some information for those with common long-term conditions is given here.

  • Diabetes. If you have diabetes, make sure that your surgical team know this so that they can take it into account when planning your surgery. Take special care to keep your blood sugar under control before your surgery. Think about your diet, your weight and how much exercise you’re taking. If you’re having problems, contact your GP or diabetes nurse for help. Your hospital may give you instructions about when and what to eat before your procedure. It’s important to follow these.
  • High blood pressure. It’s important that your blood pressure is at a safe level when you have your surgery, to reduce the risk of having a stroke. Before your surgery, make sure you take any medicines your doctor has prescribed for high blood pressure, unless you have been told to stop them. Keeping an eye on your weight and being physically active will help keep your blood pressure under control too. If your blood pressure is far too high, your surgery may have to be delayed.
  • Respiratory (lung) conditions. Tell your surgical team if you have any problems with your lungs or breathing such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It’s also important to let them know if you snore, or have sleep apnoea, as this may affect the safety of your anaesthetic. You may need some extra tests to check how well your lungs and airways are working before your surgery. And of course, if you’re still smoking, it’s very important to try to quit.

Whatever long-term medical condition you have, if you think your health isn’t as good as it could be in the weeks before your operation, talk to your doctor or specialist nurse. They may be able to suggest changes to your medication or lifestyle that can help.

Should I take my regular medicines before my surgery?

Some medicines may affect your anaesthetic, or cause problems during surgery. So it’s important that your surgical team knows what medication you’re taking regularly. This includes over-the-counter medicines, supplements and herbal medicines.

Depending on what medicine you take and your medical condition, you may be advised to stop taking your medicine days or even weeks before your surgery. It’s important to follow any instructions your hospital gives you. If you’re not sure, contact your GP for advice. Remember that you shouldn’t stop taking any prescribed medication without discussing it first with your doctor. Some medicines can cause problems if you stop taking them suddenly.

Your pre-operative assessment appointment

As the date of your operation approaches, you might be asked to complete a pre-operative screening questionnaire. Depending on your health status, you may be invited to attend a pre-operative assessment clinic. This is to make sure that you’re well enough to have your surgery, and to check if you have any problems needing special care during your treatment.

At the clinic your doctor or nurse will ask you questions about your general health and any medicines you’re taking. They may also examine you. Depending on what your surgery involves, you may be offered one or more of a range of tests. These include:

You’ll be given information about how to prepare for your operation, and what to expect. It’s very important that you follow any instructions you’re given, for instance about not eating or drinking before your operation.

Your pre-operative assessment appointment is a great chance to ask any questions you have about coming into hospital or your surgery. You may find it helpful to write these down before you attend.

Making practical arrangements before your surgery

While you’re waiting for your operation, take some time to think about any practical arrangements you need to make. These may include the following.
  • Arranging for someone to drive you to hospital, and to pick you up when you’re ready to come home.
  • Making arrangements for others to take on any caring duties you have – including for children, elderly relatives and pets.
  • Speaking to your employer about expected time off work, and perhaps a plan for a phased return after your operation.
  • Shopping for the food cupboard and preparing meals for the freezer to make things easier when you get home.
  • Making some changes at home to help you if you’re going to be less mobile for a while after your surgery. This might include moving your favourite chair, or even arranging to sleep downstairs for a while.

You’ll also need to think about what you’ll pack to take to hospital with you. You may be given a list, but there are some things most people would need. These include your regular medication, toiletries, nightwear, and some comfortable clothes and slippers. Don’t forget something to pass the time – perhaps a book, magazines, or a music player with headphones. Ask your hospital about any rules on using mobile phones.

Coping with anxiety while you wait for surgery

Waiting for an operation can be worrying; especially if your operation has been delayed. As difficult as it can be, try to keep a positive mindset during this time. There are some things you can do to help look after your mental health while you’re waiting for your surgery. These include:

  • taking time to relax – perhaps learn some breathing techniques or use progressive muscle relaxation
  • building some mindfulness into your day-to-day life
  • getting into a good sleep routine
  • being creative, or finding a hobby to focus on such as baking, DIY or playing a musical instrument
  • talking to friends and family about how you’re feeling
  • spending some time outside in the daylight and fresh air each day
  • keeping physically active and eating healthily

If you feel that your anxiety is getting on top of you, or you’re not coping, contact your GP. You may also be able to refer yourself directly to an NHS psychological therapies service. These provide talking therapies for problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression.

Keeping informed

It’s natural to be anxious about your surgery, but knowing what’s going to happen should help you feel more in control. That’s why it’s good to ask any questions you have when you see your doctor or nurse. You can also find lots of information about preparing for surgery and recovering afterwards from the organisations listed below in ‘other helpful websites’.

Finding out more about your medical condition, and the reasons for your surgery, may also help. This waiting period may be a time for you to think through your treatment options, especially if your surgery has been delayed.

What to expect after your surgery

Before you leave hospital, you should be given information about your recovery at home. This will cover such things as managing any pain you have, how to look after your surgical wound and any restrictions on your activities in the first days or weeks. If there’s something you want to know about, but it’s not covered – just ask.

You’ll also be told about any problems to look out for. Again, you can ask as many questions as you need to, so you know what’s a normal side-effect of your treatment, and what might be more serious. Make sure you know who to contact if you need advice after you get home.

Everyone is different, but here are some things you might expect after surgery.

  • Discomfort or pain, especially around any wounds you have in the first few days. This should reduce over time. You may be given painkillers to take home, or may be advised you can take over-the-counter painkillers.
  • Surgical wounds, which may be covered by dressings and held by stitches, clips or glue. You’ll get advice on how to care for these. If you have stitches that need removing, you’ll be advised where and when to have this done.
  • Tiredness – it’s not unusual to feel more tired than normal after a surgical operation, as your body uses energy to heal itself. Although it’s important to keep mobile, you should also take breaks and rest when your body needs to.
  • Feeling emotional or upset is natural from time to time in the days and weeks after your surgery. Be kind to yourself; you have been through a difficult and stressful period. If you find that your feelings of being down or upset don’t go away over time, contact your GP.

Helping yourself recover well

The best way to help yourself recover after surgery is to follow all the advice your doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals give you. This advice will be specific to you, taking into account your particular circumstances and the treatment you had.

Other things you can do to help yourself recover well and more quickly are listed here.

  • Eat healthily. A healthy diet will provide all the nutrients your body needs to heal itself.
  • Stop smoking. If you quit before your surgery, make the decision not to smoke again. If you feel that isn’t possible, try at least not to smoke during your recovery period.
  • Get into a routine. Aim to get up at the same time each morning, get dressed and begin your day. Rest when you need to, but try to stick to a daily routine to help you get back to your normal day-to-day life.
  • Accept help and support from family and friends. If they offer, let them help you with things you may find difficult, such as driving, shopping or heavy lifting. Having support from those who care about you – even just a chat over coffee – can help keep your spirits up.

Getting back to normal after surgery

How long it takes you to get back to normal after your operation depends on many things, including your general health and the treatment you had. Everyone is different. Your doctor will be able to give you an idea of how long it might take for you to resume your usual activities.

Things to ask your doctor about include the following.

  • Resuming daily activities and exercise. Your doctor will give you advice about any restrictions on your activities after your surgery. In general, it’s good to build up any activity gradually. Ask your doctor about specific leisure activities or sports that you want to resume or take up.
  • Driving. Unless you have been advised otherwise, it’s usually OK to drive again once you feel you’re fit and able to do so safely. Be aware that there are rules about when you can drive again after some surgical procedures, and with some medical conditions. Ask your doctor, and check with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA). It’s your responsibility to drive only when it is safe and legal to do so.
  • Work. You’ll probably need some time at home to recover after your surgery. Talk to your doctor before your operation about how long this might be. Their advice will vary, depending on the surgery you had and the type of job you do. You may feel a little worried about going back to work. But getting back into a work routine can aid your recovery and help stop you feeling isolated and low.

You may find it helpful to keep a diary of your recovery, setting yourself some daily goals to encourage yourself. Depending on what surgery you had, be prepared for it to take many weeks to feel fully recovered and back to normal. Your body needs time to heal properly.

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  • Written by Dr Kristina Routh, Freelance Health Editor, Bupa Health Content Team, October 2020
    Expert reviewer, Dr Helen Hartley, Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
    Next review due October 2023