First Time User? Sign Up Now
First Time User? Enroll now.
Home > Fitness & Health > Health Library > Surgery: What to Expect
Knowing what to expect before, during, and after surgery can help ease your fears. Knowledge can also help you take an active role in your recovery.
Being an active patient means asking questions and not agreeing to anything until you understand it and believe that it's for the best. Taking an active role also includes finding out about the cost of your treatment.
Minor surgeries that can be done in your doctor's office or at a same-day surgery center usually take less than 2 hours, and you can recover at home after the surgery. For these, you most likely will need only oral pain medicines after your procedure. Examples of these types of surgeries are:
For more major surgery or emergency surgery, you will probably stay in the hospital.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
You will have an appointment with your surgeon before your surgery. For this appointment, take along a list of questions about the surgery to help you understand your treatment.
Your surgeon will explain why your surgery is needed, what it will involve, what its risks and expected outcome are, and how long it will take you to recover. Talk to your surgeon about any concerns you have about the surgery. You may also want to ask about treatments you might try other than surgery.
Most surgery centers and hospitals have a before-surgery form for you to fill out. This form usually includes questions about your medical history and current health.
This information helps the surgical team prepare for your surgery. They are trained to provide you with safe care during your surgery. You most likely will complete the form 1 to 3 days before your surgery.
Talk to your surgeon about what kinds of surgery you have had in the past. Describe your recovery period, and be sure to mention any problems you may have had.
Describe any health problems you have, such as:
It's important to tell your doctor about any tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs, or medicines you use. This includes over-the-counter medicines, vitamins, and supplements, such as St. John's wort and diet aids. Your use of substances or medicines may affect your reaction to anesthesia or pain medicines.
Talk about any physical restrictions you have, such as an artificial joint or limited range of motion of your neck, arms, or legs.
Let your doctor know if you have any metal implants or fragments in your body.
Tell your surgeon if you are or might be pregnant.
Before surgery, your surgeon may also ask you to see your regular doctor for an exam and possibly for tests. A surgeon may ask this to make sure that surgery is not likely to be too hard on you. The tests may include:
You may also be scheduled for other tests, such as X-rays or an electrocardiogram (EKG), if your surgeon thinks they are needed before your surgery.
Your surgeon may include other doctors in your care, depending on your other medical conditions. For example, if you have heart problems, your surgeon may discuss your care with a cardiologist.
If you have many medical problems, your regular doctor may do your physical exam before surgery. To help make sure that no problems are missed, you may find it helpful to have a doctor who knows you well do this exam and your medical history.
If you will need blood during your surgery, you may wish to donate your own blood. This has to be done several weeks before your surgery.
Many hospitals or surgery centers have a nurse who will meet with you or call you at home a few days before your surgery. This nurse makes sure all your forms and tests are complete before your scheduled surgery. The nurse also:
Before your surgery, your surgeon or nurse will remind you to do the following:
When you arrive for your surgery, your nurse will:
Your nurse will also explain to you what will happen and will reassure you to help you stay calm. He or she may go over a pain scale, which may be used to help see how you are doing after surgery.
Your surgeon or the surgical team may also give you some information on what will happen after surgery, such as whether you will have special equipment, like another IV, a urinary catheter, or wound drains.
The nurse will have you:
The nurse will give you any medicines ordered by your surgery team, such as:
Family and friends
The nurse will tell your family or friends how long you will be in surgery and in the recovery area. The nurse will also let them know where they can wait during your surgery.
The nurse will answer any questions you or your family members have about your surgery. Tell the nurse who you want to be contacted right after your surgery to talk about how the surgery went.
A special surgical team helps the surgeon with your surgery. This team usually includes:
In university or teaching hospitals, doctors with different levels of surgical training may watch or help with your surgery. But your surgeon will be in charge.
The surgical team is trained to provide you with safe care during your surgery. Before they start, the team members will double-check your name, what type of surgery you are there for, and what part of your body is to be operated on.
If you are having general anesthesia, a breathing tube (endotracheal tube) is placed in your windpipe or a special airway (laryngeal mask airway, or LMA) is placed in the back of your throat to help you breathe during the surgery. To learn more, see the topic Anesthesia.
The place on your skin where the incision will be is washed with a special solution to remove bacteria. All instruments used during your surgery are sterilized to reduce your risk of infection.
Pain control is an important concern. Near the end of your surgery, your surgeon may inject a long-acting pain medicine at the site of your surgery to decrease your pain for 6 to 12 hours after surgery.
Right after surgery, you will be taken to a recovery area where nurses will care for and observe you. A nurse will check your vital signs and bandages. He or she will also ask about your pain level.
When you wake up, you may have a small tube just below your nose that supplies oxygen to your lungs.
You will most likely stay in the recovery area for 1 to 4 hours. Then you will be moved to a hospital room or you will go home. You may receive medicine or fluids through your vein (intravenous, or IV) during your time in the hospital.
Relief of any nausea or vomiting is an important concern. If you will be going home the same day, you will need to drink fluids without vomiting, be upright without fainting, and urinate on your own before you will be sent home.
If you go home, the nurse will give you instructions on breathing and exercises to help prevent any problems. For most minor surgeries, the nurse will encourage you to be as active as possible to prevent these problems.
Your doctor may give you medicine for pain.
Pain control remains an important concern after surgery. Inflammation or nerve injury from the surgery can cause pain. Your doctor may give you more than one medicine for pain. Often, opioids are given. In some cases, you may use a pain pump so that it's easy to get pain medicine right when you need it.
Typically, before you go home your doctors and nurses will make sure that:
The most common problems after surgery are pneumonia, bleeding, infection, clotted blood (hematoma) at the surgery site, and reactions to the anesthesia.
In the first 48 hours after surgery, the most likely risks are bleeding and problems with your heart or lungs.
From 48 hours to 30 days after surgery, the most common risks are infection, blood clots, and problems with other body organs, such as a urinary tract infection.
Along with putting you to sleep during surgery, anesthesia can have side effects. Two of the most unpleasant ones are nausea and constipation.
While nausea will soon wear off, your constipation can leave you uncomfortable for several days after your surgery. Your nurses can give you a medicine to promote bowel movement. But eating may actually be the most effective means of ending constipation, because food will push waste through your system.
You may meet most of the criteria to go home but may not be able to do certain things well enough to go home. In this case, you may go to a type of assisted-living facility instead of to your home. Nurses and rehabilitation specialists at an assisted-living facility can help you work toward getting home.
You will most likely go home with a sheet of instructions including whom to contact if you have a problem.
A nurse will go over these instructions with you. He or she can also help arrange for any care you will need when you go home. This may include nursing care or visits from other health care workers.
Your instructions will include:
Your home-care instructions will include how to take care of your incision. The instructions will explain:
Your instructions will include when to have a follow-up appointment with your surgeon. Your surgeon will want to talk to you before your follow-up appointment if:
Call 911 or other emergency services right away if you have these symptoms:
Your recovery from surgery may be different from what your surgeon expected. Other symptoms or problems may develop after your surgery, even when you follow your surgeon's instructions. This can be very frustrating.
Be sure to call your surgeon if you have an unexpected symptom or problem, including:
Other Works Consulted
Antimicrobial prophylaxis for surgery (2013). Treatment Guidelines From The Medical Letter, 10(122): 73–78.
Cohn SL (2016). Preoperative evaluation. In L Goldman, A Schafer, eds., Goldman-Cecil Medicine, 25th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2611–2617. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Costello AM, Bockstiegel R (2009). Preparing for surgery. In B Narins, ed., Gale Encyclopedia of Surgery and Medical Tests: A Guide for Patients and Caregivers, 2nd ed., vol. 4, pp. 1331–1337. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
Doherty GM (2010). Postoperative care. In Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Surgery, 13th ed., pp. 24–32. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Doherty GM (2010). Preoperative care. In Current Diagnosis and Treatment: Surgery, 13th ed., pp. 12–23. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Ford-Martin P (2009). Recovery room. In B Narins, ed., Gale Encyclopedia of Surgery and Medical Tests: A Guide for Patients and Caregivers, 2nd ed., vol. 4, pp. 1366–1367. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
Franz J, Bockstiegel R (2009). Post-surgical pain. In B Narins, ed., Gale Encyclopedia of Surgery and Medical Tests: A Guide for Patients and Caregivers, 2nd ed., vol. 4, pp. 1320–1324. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale.
Hardin RE, Zenilman ME (2015). Surgical considerations in the elderly. In FC Brunicardi et al., eds., Schwartz's Principles of Surgery, 10th ed., pp. 1923–1939. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Redelmeier DA (2016). Postoperative care and complications. In L Goldman, A Schafer, eds., Goldman-Cecil Medicine, 25th ed., vol. 2, pp. 2621–2625. Philadelphia: Saunders.
Smeltzer SC, et al. (2010). Postoperative nursing management. In Brunner and Suddarth's Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing, 12th ed., pp. 461–483. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Smeltzer SC, et al. (2010). Preoperative nursing management. In Brunner and Suddarth's Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing, 12th ed., pp. 425–441. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
Current as of:
August 22, 2019
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal MedicineKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineE. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal MedicineKenneth Bark MD - General Surgery, Colon and Rectal Surgery
Current as of: August 22, 2019
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:Anne C. Poinier MD - Internal Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson MD - Internal Medicine & Kenneth Bark MD - General Surgery, Colon and Rectal Surgery
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2020 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
Feeling under the weather?
Use our interactive symptom checker to evaluate your symptoms and determine appropriate action or treatment.
Our interactive Decision Points guide you through making key health decisions by combining medical information with your personal information.
You'll find Decision Points to help you answer questions about:
Get started learning more about your health!
Our Interactive Tools can help you make smart decisions for a healthier life. You'll find personal calculators and tools for health and fitness, lifestyle checkups, and pregnancy.