How to prepare for an operation

7 min read

How to prepare for an operation
Advanced preparation and a positive strategy for the days and weeks that follow can help to ensure a full, speedy recovery

Understanding your operation

ways to prepare for an operation
There’s a wealth of evidence showing that being prepared for major surgery—both physically and mentally—can affect the outcome.
Any big operation that requires one or more nights in the hospital will have a significant impact on the body so it’s advisable to make sure you’re as fit as possible. That means achieving a healthy weight, stopping smoking, eating a balanced diet and taking regular exercise. The stronger you are, the better your body will cope with the surgery itself and the quicker your recovery will be. Less obvious perhaps are the benefits of preparing yourself psychologically.
Although it’s normal to worry about a forthcoming operation, it makes sense to confront these anxieties rather than bottling them up and fretting. What’s more, there’s solid scientific evidence that achieving a calm and positive outlook can improve the outcome of surgery and help recovery. A 2006 review published in the Journal of the Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons found evidence that psychosocial factors (including attitude and mood plus the level of social support) can play a significant role in post-operative recovery.

Ask the right questions

You’ll almost certainly feel better if you enter the operating theatre confident that you’re doing the right thing and that you can trust your surgeon and his or her team.
Research your operation online for the most up-to-date information about the procedure and the questions you may need to ask. It’s worth starting to write a list of questions that you’d like to ask your surgeon as soon as your GP decides to refer you for possible surgery. Far from being offended, the surgical team will welcome your interest—knowing that the more involved you are in your care in hospital, the better you’ll manage your care at home afterwards.       

Questions to ask

Your pre-surgery appointment is your best, perhaps only, chance to get your questions answered by the expert. Don’t be embarrassed to ask about any issue that is worrying you. Here are some questions you may want to ask:
  • I’m feeling unsure about my operation. Should I seek a second opinion?  
  • What is your experience of this operation? Is there a more conservative non-surgical approach? And how successful would it be? How urgent is the operation?  
  • How long will I need to recover from the operation and when am I likely to be mobile? What can I do now to prepare myself for rehabilitation post-op?
  • What are the specific risks of this operation and what will you do to reduce them? 
  • If a trainee surgeon is likely to be operating, what kind of supervision will be given?  
  • What kind of scar is this going to leave and is there anything you can do to minimise it?   

Preparing for your recovery

The time spent recuperating in hospital after even quite major operations is much less today than was the case even 20 years ago. This has the advantage of allowing you to recover in the comfort of your own home, without the inconveniences and risk of infection that a prolonged hospital stay entails. But it also means that you will have to manage many aspects of your recovery away from 24-hour nursing care.
With a planned operation, you are likely to have time to think about what help you will need and what adaptations to your home may be necessary when you return. Make sure you find out how the operation will affect you physically by getting as much information as possible from your doctors and from friends who’ve had similar procedures. You can discover how other people manage by taking a look at the health website Health Talk Online, where patients talk on video about their experiences of various health issues, including those requiring surgery.
Here is a four-step plan to help ensure the early post-operative days are plain sailing:
  1. Visualise how your life will be during recuperation to identify hidden problems. Will you be able to get around your house by yourself? You may need to consider putting your bed in a different room to allow easy access to a bathroom. If getting to a toilet is likely to cause problems, consider hiring or borrowing a commode. The British Red Cross has a loan scheme. If you are dependent on car transport, you may also need to consider how soon you will be able to drive—factoring in the effects of pain-relieving medication as well as the impact of the surgery
  2. Ask the surgical team about any exercises you’ll be expected to do after surgery. As long as your surgeon approves, practise them regularly before you go into hospital. Working your muscles and joints beforehand will speed your recovery
  3. Find out from your surgical team about any walking aids (crutches or a walking frame, for example) that you may need after your operation if you’re having hip or knee surgery. Confirm that these will be supplied by the hospital
  4. Allow plenty of time to install secure handrails and grab bars in your shower if you’ve been advised that you’ll need them. Also, make sure you have a comfortable and stable chair with a firm cushion, back and two arms for your living room. These adaptations are sometimes available through your local authority occupational therapy department

Accept help graciously

You’ll need support at this time, and in the run-up to your operation don’t be embarrassed to ask friends and family for help—most people are happy to step up when needed.
Here are some suggestions for ways to make the most of other people’s kindness:
  • Arrange for someone to clean the house for you. A messy environment will only increase your stress while you’re recovering
  • Make a list of what help you’ll need after your operation whether it’s shopping, laundry, cooking or childcare. Ask each volunteer helper to pick one or more items from your list
  • Arrange a rota of visitors post-surgery. You’ll probably want your partner, children or closest friends nearby soon after surgery. After a week or two, you may well welcome new faces. But be ready to cancel, if you don’t feel up to it
  • Stock up on healthy foods before you go into hospital. If you are well enough, make and freeze meals to reheat for yourself or your friends when they come to see you after you return home

Getting fit for theatre

Instead of worrying about your forthcoming operation, put all your energy into making sure you’re as fit as possible. You really can make a difference to the outcome of your surgery if you take action in the time remaining before your admission date.
Quitting smoking is the best way to improve the outcome of your operation at a single stroke. Stopping the habit at least six weeks before has been shown to bring about a significant reduction in health problems resulting from surgery.  You’re three times more likely to quit if you get help from your local Stop Smoking Service. Make an appointment today.
Most people think that getting fit means losing weight, but that’s not necessarily the case when you’re preparing for surgery—you certainly shouldn’t consider following the latest fad diet. "What’s important is to become as well nourished as possible by the time you have the operation through eating a healthy, balanced diet," says Julie Ann Kidd of the British Dietetic Association (BDA). "‘You can be overweight and still be poorly nourished if your diet lacks essential nutrients. People with cancer and other health problems… are frequently underweight and will have a better outcome if they put on a few pounds."
For people whose weight loss is due to illness, the best advice is to build strength by eating a balanced range of nutritious foods. The British Dietetic Association provides information on diet on its website. 
what should I eat before an operation
If you are carrying extra pounds, depending on the time available before your operation, losing excess weight can be one of the most worthwhile contributions you can make to your health before surgery—especially if the operation involves weight-bearing joints. But don’t crash diet just before you go into hospital. Gradual, healthy weight loss (no more than 2lb/1kg per week), preferably under medical supervision, should be the most you should aim for.
If you and your doctor agree that you have a weight-related problem that might affect your forthcoming surgery, it’s advisable to consult a registered dietitian either through your hospital or your GP. A dietitian can help you manage the move to healthy eating. Your priority should be to increase your nutrient intake. If your daily diet consists largely of food with a high-fat and high-sugar content, incorporate more vegetables, fruit and fish in your daily diet, while cutting down, for example, on fried foods, cakes and sweet drinks.
If your physical condition before your operation permits it, it is a good idea to get into the habit of gentle exercise. Your doctor will confirm what type of activity is safe and sensible for you to do. For those whose lives are largely sedentary, regular strolls in the park or even just walking to and from appointments with the doctor, will have a beneficial impact on fitness for surgery. 
Being relaxed has many benefits, including soothing your nervous system, boosting your immune system, balancing your heart rhythms and promoting healing. In the period before your operation, focus on positive thoughts and your goal of a full and speedy recovery. You can continue to use these strategies during your recuperation. If you have specific fears about your surgery, set your mind at rest by talking to your GP or the surgical team at the hospital. 

What to take to hospital

For a hospital stay of more than one night, take the following items:
  • Two sets of nightwear and a dressing gown and slippers (not slipper socks)
  • One set of day clothes and spare underwear  
  • A small hand towel and toiletries, including soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo, plus sanitary protection (pre-menopausal women) and a razor and shaving materials (men), a comb or hairbrush
  • Things to occupy you (books, magazines, MP3 player, etc.), a small amount of money to buy things such as newspapers, phone calls and anything you may want from the hospital shop or ward trolley
  • Your usual medications, including eye drops, inhalers and creams, antiseptic hand wipes
  • A notebook and pen to write down any questions you have when the doctor is not available
  • Healthy, non-perishable snacks to eat between meals (nuts, dried fruit)
  • Your address book and important phone numbers, including your GP’s contact details