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Staying healthy in the lead up to an operation

Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
05 May 2020

The coronavirus pandemic means that a lot of routine operations are being delayed. But if you find yourself waiting longer than expected for your operation, it’s worth thinking about how you can use this additional time to your advantage.

Making sure you’re in the best possible health before your surgery can make all the difference to your recovery, and even to the success of your operation. You’ll also be helping to improve your health over the long-term. So what can you do? Here I’ll go through some of the most important things to focus on.

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Cut down on alcohol

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 after your surgery. And if you’re a heavy drinker, you are more prone to infections and other complications after an operation.

The recommendations for everyone are to not regularly drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week. Fourteen units is the equivalent of six pints of average-strength beer, or six standard glasses of average-strength wine. If you think you might be going over the recommendations, now’s the time to start tracking what you drink and cutting down.

Stopping smoking

There are lots of good reasons to stop smoking, but preparing for an operation is a good incentive to quit. If you smoke, you’re at greater risk of complications and infections after surgery. Stopping smoking before your surgery can reduce the length of time you need to stay in hospital, as well as improve how quickly your body heals. Sometimes, surgeons won’t carry out a procedure until the patient is able to stop smoking, as the risks from smoking can be so great.

It can be difficult to quit. If you smoke, your surgeon may have given you some advice and offered you support to stop smoking. They may direct you to specialist services. Your GP surgery can also offer advice on this.

Diet and weight

Taking care with what you eat is as important before surgery as it is after. Eating a healthy diet will give you all the nutrients you need for your body to repair itself. Being obese puts you at greater risk of various complications from surgery and anaesthesia, including breathing problems, heart and lung complications and wound infections. Losing weight can help to reduce many of the risks you face during the surgery. It might make your surgery easier to perform too. If you’ve lost weight before your surgery, you’ll also reduce your risk of further health conditions in the long term.

The best way to lose weight is to reduce how much you’re eating as well as be more active. Your surgeon or GP should be able to signpost you to local services that can offer support with weight loss.

Fitness and exercise

It’s a good idea to keep active in the lead up to your surgery, or increase your activity levels beforehand if you’re not currently very active. Having surgery creates additional demands on your heart and lungs – the fitter you are, the better your heart and lungs will be able to cope this. How active you are before your operation can make a difference to how mobile you are afterwards too. Of course, if you’re not used to being very active, it’s best to talk it through with your doctor first.

No-one expects you to be running marathons before your surgery. Any activity that gets you out of breath will help – you could try brisk walking or cycling. If you can’t get out, there are plenty of exercises you can do from home.

Try following an online workout or exercise plan, or dance around to your favourite music. Even just doing the gardening or housework will help to keep you active.

Aim to include exercises and activities that help to maintain your muscle and bone strength too, such as yoga, climbing the stairs or carrying heavy bags. Keeping your strength up can help ease the return to your usual activities after leaving hospital, and may also help protect against injury.

Managing pain

Potential side-effects of surgery, including possible pain, are a common concern in the run up to surgery. Understanding how your body reacts to pain, and learning how best to deal with any discomfort can help both now and after your operation.

How you feel and respond to pain is a really complex process. Although there’s a physiological side to it – whatever has happened in your body to cause the pain – there’s also a psychological element. This means how your brain reacts to it. This is why pain is very subjective. How bad it feels, and how much of an impact it has, is very individual to you. These things can be influenced by your feelings, attitudes and beliefs, as well as your past experiences. You might notice that your pain feels worse if you focus on it or feel negatively about it, for instance. On the other hand, finding ways to distract yourself from pain and to think positively may improve how you feel. Learning how to accept a certain level of discomfort that you can live with and still function quite normally can also help.

You may find relaxation and breathing techniques help to overcome any discomfort. Mindfulness and distraction are also useful techniques that can help you to relax and not to focus on pain. Use the time before your surgery to practise these techniques. You might find you’re able to cope with postoperative discomfort more easily than you expect.

Getting prepared

You may well feel anxious in the lead up to your operation, but being informed about your operation and preparing yourself can help with that. Looking after your mental health is just as important as your physical health before an operation, and can also make a difference to your recovery.

You might find it helps to do things that make you feel more in control. As well as trying to be as healthy as you can be before your operation, plan for your recovery afterwards. Will you need to make any changes at home? Will you need help from family or friends? It’s really important to have a good, healthy diet after your surgery in order to heal well. Use the time beforehand to plan healthy meals and snacks you’ll be able to have when you get home, or who will be able to help you with this. The Royal College of Anaesthetists has some great information on what practical things you can do to prepare for surgery.

Doing as much as you can to prepare both mentally and physically now will go a long way to helping you on your road to recovery.

Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance

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