6 Steps for a Successful Surgery

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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If  your doctor has recommended you have a major operation, you may feel apprehensive. Surgery can seem mysterious and make you feel as though you’re not in control. While any surgical procedure comes with some level of risk, you can take steps ahead of time to reduce surgical complications and help ensure a successful outcome.

By educating yourself and ensuring you’re in qualified hands, you may be able to take some of the worry out of your upcoming procedure and improve your likelihood of a smooth and speedy recovery.

1. Ask questions.

When you and your doctor discuss going ahead with surgery, make sure you understand exactly what’s going to happen and why. Before you meet with the surgeon, write down a list of topics you want to ask about, don’t hesitate to take notes, and consider having a friend or family member come with you, especially if you’re feeling anxious. Here are some questions to ask your doctor:

  • Why are you recommending this procedure?
  • Are there alternative procedures or treatments?
  • What kind of anesthesia will I have?
  • What are the risks and benefits of the operation?
  • What are the possible complications?
  • What steps can I take before surgery to lower my risk of surgical complications?
  • What happens if I don’t have the procedure?
  • How long will I be in the hospital and how long before I can get back to my normal routine?
  • What kind of pain medication will you give me?
  • Should I get a second opinion?

2. Check the credentials of the facility and the surgeon.

Where you have your operation can be just as important as who does it. You want to make sure the facility is fully equipped to handle your procedure and performs them on a regular basis. You can check out hospital quality ratings here on Healthgrades; online though Hospital Care, a government service; or through the Joint Commission, a non-profit that ranks surgical facilities. Verify your surgeon’s credentials and ask whether your operation is something he or she performs often. Your risk of complications or even death decrease dramatically when your procedure is performed by an experienced surgeon in a highly rated hospital.

3. Give all your relevant medical history.

You will probably be asked to give your history several times before your operation. Don’t be impatient: It’s an important safeguard. Having it all written down can save time and ensure you cover all details. Your list should include:

  • All medications you are taking, both prescription and over-the-counter, as well as supplements
  • All medical conditions, such as diabetes, blood disorders, and lung or heart conditions, which can increase the risk of complications
  • Chronic opioid or narcotic use, which can also lead to surgical complications as well as problems with anesthesia. Opioid use can also make post-op pain harder to control.
  • Any history of staph infections. As many as a quarter of patients have staph bacteria in their bodies, which raises the risk of serious infection.

4. Make healthy lifestyle changes.

If you smoke, quitting is one of the best things you can do to help ensure the success of your procedure and recovery. Smokers are more prone to pneumonia, slower healing, and even heart attacks after surgery. If you smoke, make an effort to stop as soon as you know the operation is scheduled, and try not to smoke for at least a week afterwards. Ideally, make it a permanent change.

Obesity is another factor that can lead to surgical complications. If you are significantly overweight, talk to your doctor about how you can lose weight before your operation. Regular exercise and a healthy diet can make recovery quicker and easier. The better shape you are in before surgery, the better shape you’ll be in afterward.

5. Follow pre–op directions carefully.

It’s important to understand and follow instructions about medication and other factors prior to your surgery. If you’re confused about them, call your doctor’s office and ask them to clarify what you’re supposed to do. You’ll be asked not to eat or drink after midnight (or possibly longer) on the day before your operation. Avoid shaving the area where your incision will be for two weeks before surgery. When you’re ready to leave for the hospital, put on comfortable clothes and leave any jewelry at home. Bring your ID, insurance information, and any medical equipment and prescriptions you will need during your stay.

6. Follow your recovery instructions just as carefully.

When you are ready to leave the hospital, the staff will give you post-op instructions for your particular procedure. If you are not clear about them, ask for clarification. Keep an eye on your incision and call your doctor if you see any signs of infection—redness, swelling and discharge—or if you run a fever higher than 101 degrees Fahrenheit. Your digestion may be thrown off by the anesthesia, but eating a healthy diet and drinking plenty of liquids will help get it back on track. Talk to your doctor about pain control and mobility after your surgery, and ask when it’s OK to resume normal activities such as work and exercise.

The prospect of major surgery may be daunting, but by taking proactive steps and preparing effectively, you can become one of the many millions of people who have successful surgery in the U.S. each year.


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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 29
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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