Are “Doctor’s Orders” After Surgery Really Important?

Something strange happens to us as patients when we go in for surgery. Before surgery, we tend to be cautious or even anxious. Consequently, we follow our surgeon’s directions closely, regulating our use of medicines, avoiding food and beverages after midnight, arriving at the surgery center at the correct time, etc. Patients tend to be rule followers before they go into surgery.

Not surprisingly, our actions after surgery tend to be quite different. I suppose it should be expected. The hard part is over, after all. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. All patients are given a set of instructions that their surgeon expects them to follow in order to expedite their post-surgery recovery.

These instructions may include things like wearing a sling or a brace, avoiding certain activities (like walking or lifting) and taking prescribed medicines. We may receive “doctor’s orders” regarding diet and exercise, both in the short term and the long term. Physical therapy, for example, is a carefully controlled form of stretching and exercise designed to safely guide recovery.

In most cases these instructions aren’t particularly challenging to follow, but they are often ignored nonetheless. In our post-surgery relief (“thank goodness that’s over”), we often succumb to counterproductive thoughts that can derail our recovery. Here are a few of the most common:

“I deserve a reward.”

Americans have gotten into the habit of being rewarded quickly for anything we do. It’s easy for us, then, to forget the long-term rewards of surgery (alleviating chronic knee pain, for example) and convince ourselves that we need a more immediate reward. This can come in the form of unhealthy food, ill-advised consumption of alcohol or activities that are prohibited (hiking, for example).

“I need to get back to normal fast.”

The point of surgery is to get us back to “normal,” of course, but the process takes time. Pushing your newly repaired body beyond its limits will only result in another trip to the operating room. Yet we still insist on returning to life as if nothing happened. It’s common for patients to “break the rules” by going back to work before they are really ready, for example. In theory, this sounds commendable, but in practice, it seriously impedes the healing process.

“This is too hard.”

Physical therapy can be a lot of work. Many times there is discomfort or weakness after surgery, and the act of stretching and moving those limbs and joints can be very challenging. It can be easy to skip today’s exercises and convince ourselves that we will “work a little harder tomorrow.” We may also do those exercises incorrectly, adapting them to our comfort level rather than performing them as instructed. Inconsistent physical therapy is less effective, and incorrect physical therapy exercises can be counterproductive (or even dangerous).

Getting Back On Track

There are no shortcuts to a successful recovery after surgery. It requires fortitude, patience and effort. Luckily, we don’t need to do it by ourselves.

“Recovery is all about collaboration,” says Dr. Joff Thompson, an arthroscopic surgeon at Valley Bone & Joint Clinic in Grand Forks, North Dakota. “When you work together with your doctor, your nurses, your physical therapists, your family and your friends, it is much easier to reach a positive outcome.”

If you find yourself recovering from surgery, it might help to plan out short-term goals. By reducing the recovery process to smaller “pieces,” you get the benefit of more celebrations of success. In other words, reaching many smaller milestones can give you a consistent feeling of pride that may be more energizing than only looking into the future for a single diagnosis of “recovered.”

In fact, rather than “doctor’s orders,” think of your time after surgery as a “recovery plan.” According to Thompson, “Patients almost always get healthy faster when they follow directions and stick to a schedule. When they work with their surgeon to develop a plan – then stick with that plan – it becomes less likely that they will need a follow-up procedure.”

Make sure you and your doctor have a plan for your recovery, then stick with it unless your doctor tells you otherwise. There’s no use going through surgery and then not being able to enjoy the results.

If you require arthroscopic surgery, hip or knee replacement, back surgery or the expertise of a rheumatologist, ask your doctor to refer you to the hometown experts at Valley Bone & Joint Clinic.