Surgery recovery: Preparation is key
What can you do before your upcoming surgery to put your body in the best position for a strong recovery?
If you’re heading in for surgery, you want to be as healthy and strong as possible to boost your chances of a smooth recovery. So what can you do before surgery to give your body its best chance of bouncing back fast?
Research shows there are lots of ways you can help get the best results from your procedure – and most of them begin before you’ve even been admitted, from diet and exercise to medical checks.
Eating a healthy diet boosts your body nutritionally and can make it better prepared for the job of surgery recovery. Jane Freeman, an accredited practising dietitian and Dietitians Australia spokesperson, says it’s important to maintain a healthy weight and to include a range of higher protein foods, like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, pulses, nuts, tofu and dairy products, as part of your main meals and snacks.
“A higher protein intake will help with the rates of tissue repair and reduce the risks of infections and complications,” she says.
Exercise and education
You’ve probably heard of rehabilitation, which involves a physical recovery program after illness, injury or surgery to restore or increase your strength, balance and movement. This can be done in hospital or at home after you’re discharged. Research on knee and hip replacements shows that getting patients moving early after surgery can reduce their length of hospital stay.
Prehabilitation (or prehab) takes place in the weeks before surgery and can help you prepare physically and mentally. It’s used for many types of surgery but is especially helpful in procedures that take a big physical toll, like knee and hip replacements, says Emma Blake, orthopaedic chair of the Australian Physiotherapy Association.
Emma says prehab involves strengthening muscle groups that might take on extra work after your operation, and educating you about your procedure, recovery and correct use of equipment, like crutches. You’ll also be guided on post-surgery rehabilitation exercises.
“If it was pre-op care for someone undergoing a knee replacement, for example, the main things they need to work on are strengthening their lower leg muscles (their quadriceps and hamstrings) and working on the range of motion in their joints, because a lot of people will have restricted movement due to the disease process of arthritis,” she explains. “This is closely linked to post-op recovery also.”
A review in the Australian Journal of General Practice (AJGP) confirmed that “pre-operative cardiovascular exercise and joint-strengthening exercises are important to maximise post-operative recovery”. It also noted that prehab can help patients feel more engaged with the treatment process.
According to the review, prehab in hip replacement patients is linked with less pain, improved function and shorter hospital stays after surgery. For knee surgery patients, there is improved function, greater quadricep strength and shorter hospital stays.
Getting access to care online
HCF has teamed up with Stand Up to Joint Pain, a program that delivers virtual prehab for people needing a hip or knee replacement, which offers coaching and tailored support at no cost to eligible HCF members*. To help you prepare for surgery, you’re provided with an in-home strength, mobility and pain management kit as well as phone and video support.
Chris Morton, a senior physio and operations manager at Ethos Health, which runs the Stand Up to Joint Pain program, explains how the coaching and support works. First, you are given a personal assessment that identifies any risk factors. These are used to inform a predicted outcome after your surgery. From there, tailored support can help put you in the best possible position for surgery and your recovery.
“There’s a proportion of people who engage in their prehab and achieve such significant improvements in their pain and function that they decide to defer their surgery altogether,” Chris says.
Medical checklist before surgery
If elective surgery is on your radar, it’s a good idea to visit your GP for a health check. This might reduce some of the risks associated with your procedure. In the area of knee and hip replacements, the AJGP review says there are some steps you can take before surgery to reduce risks and maximise recovery.
- losing weight if your body mass index is above 40, as obesity is linked to increased risks of issues like infections, dislocations and readmissions in people having hip replacements and an increase in infections in people having knee replacements – eligible HCF members can access the Healthy Weight for Life program for support#
- aiming for average blood sugar levels of ≤53 mmol/mol (≤7%) before surgery if you’re diabetic – speak to your GP for help
- quitting smoking at least 4 weeks before surgery
- avoiding the use of opioids for osteoarthritis
- checking and correcting your iron levels and vitamin D before surgery
- eating a healthy diet.
Always consult your healthcare provider if you’re experiencing joint pain and before you make any decisions relating to your treatment.
Words by Karen Burge
First published December 2021
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*To be eligible, members must have held hospital cover that covers joint replacement surgery for 12 months and have diagnosed osteoarthritis of the hip and/or knee.
#If you’re overweight and living with osteoarthritis — or are at risk of developing a chronic condition — and have held eligible HCF hospital cover for 12 months, you may be eligible for a free Healthy Weight for Life program, including healthy eating and exercise plans and coaching. Other terms and conditions apply. See our Healthy Weight for Life page or call the Healthy Weight for Life team at 1800 226 180.
^Eligible members will need to have HCF hospital cover including primary hip and knee replacements for 12 months (excluding Overseas Visitors Health Cover). Members will be accepted into the program in line with clinical criteria by the participating clinician and hospital on a patient-by-patient basis. Must be admitted at Macquarie University Hospital, Eastern Sydney Private Hospital, Hurstville Private Hospital or Vermont Private Hospital.