Convalescence After Major Surgery

The period of adjustment and recovery following a major operation

After surgery, there may be a period of time before you are able to return to work and resume your normal activities. This period of convalescence often involves some bed rest, and you may need help with day-to-day tasks. In addition to physical recovery, convalescence following major surgery may also involve a period of psychological adjustment. It is not unusual to feel emotional or depressed after surgery, and many people find counselling helpful.

Recent developments in surgical technique, for example endoscopic surgery, and improvements in the control and relief of pain have shortened the time needed for convalescence. In most cases, the older you are, the more extensive the surgery, and the poorer your general health, the more time you will need to convalesce.

You are likely to need a period of rest after surgery and may be in enough discomfort to restrict movement. However, this must be balanced with the need for you to gradually increase your level of activity in order to regain your strength and reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis. If your muscles are weak from lack of use, such as after surgery on bones or joints, you may be offered regular physiotherapy to regain mobility and muscle strength. You may also need help from a specialist nurse to make temporary or permanent lifestyle changes, such as learning how to manage a colostomy.

Resuming activity

To help you recover as quickly as possible after surgery, it is important to try to be as physically active as you can. Make sure that you have appropriate medication to allow you to move around without excessive pain. After some types of surgery, particularly operations on the abdomen, it may hurt to cough, and secretions may remain in the lungs. In this case, you will be shown breathing exercises and how to reduce discomfort when you cough before you leave hospital, and you should continue to use these techniques during convalescence. As you recover from surgery, you should gradually be able to resume many of your day-to-day activities. With time, you will be able to return to your normal lifestyle, resume sexual activity, and drive again.


You should follow your doctor’s advice on when to return to work, taking into account the progress of your recovery and the nature of your occupation. Manual work naturally requires a higher level of physical fitness than office work. You may be able to arrange to resume your work duties gradually. For many people, travelling to and from work may be the most demanding part of the day.


Few surgical operations require you to abstain from sexual activity afterwards for physical reasons, but your surgeon will tell you if there is a particular risk. However, sometimes you may wish to avoid sex for reasons of comfort as well as from medical necessity, such as after surgery on a hernia in the groin. You may also need time for your sexual feelings to return to normal, since it is very common for sex drive to disappear during a period of illness. If you have sexual problems that continue for some time after surgery, consult your doctor.


You may be advised not to drive if your operation or medical condition could affect your concentration or your ability to drive safely, for example if you are unable to wear a seat belt or stop quickly in an emergency. It may be unsafe for you to drive while you are taking certain painkillers or other drugs. Your doctor will advise you when you can start driving again.

Identifying complications

Something may be seriously wrong if you suddenly feel ill or if a symptom that was improving begins to get worse. Symptoms such as fever, shortness of breath, coughing, bleeding or a new discharge from the surgical wound, or pain in the legs, chest, or operation site that becomes worse may indicate a problem. If you develop any of these symptoms, you should seek advice promptly from your doctor or a contact at the hospital, who can distinguish between normal postoperative symptoms and serious complications.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

The subjects, conditions and treatments covered in this encyclopaedia are for information only and may not be covered by your insurance product should you make a claim.

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