How to look after your body and mind before undergoing an operation

There may be a team of professionals taking care of the main event, but how can we help ourselves when waiting for surgery? Abi Jackson finds out.
How to look after your body and mind before undergoing an operation

SURGERY: Be prepared, patients

THOUSANDS of people will be waiting for surgery of some sort, yet preparing for it isn’t something we discuss much.

I don’t mean the core basics, like remembering the ‘nil by mouth’ rule before your general anaesthetic, and wriggling into compression stockings. I’m talking about getting operation-fit on a wider level.

Of course, a team of professionals take the lead for the main event. But beyond the operating table, you’re in charge — and taking a proactive approach can be immensely beneficial.

How can you help yourself?

“People get a lot of benefit from feeling they’re contributing to their health, not just being passive, and there’s evidence it gets them out of hospital quicker,” says Mrs Scarlett McNally, consultant orthopaedic surgeon and Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) Council member.

Improving perioperative care (the medical term for pre and post-surgery care) is very important, she stresses, and has a significant impact on patient outcomes. “For example, if people stop smoking for four weeks before surgery, it reduces the complications of the operation by 19%. “

Psychological wellbeing matters too. Dr Meg Arroll, a psychologist and author at Ten Harley Street ( says there’s been a number of studies looking at the impact of stress on healing. “We know chronic stress leads to significantly longer healing periods, so there is a profound physical benefit of taking care of our emotional and psychological health before and after surgery,” says Arroll.

Body and mind

Surgery isn’t just a physical ordeal — it’s a mental one too. This can include coming to terms with a diagnosis, anxiety about the procedure, and coping with the recovery. It’s normal to experience these things, and acknowledging them can be immensely beneficial, as it puts you in the driver’s seat for managing them. “Of course it’s an anxiety-provoking time, and planning around that is very important,” says Arroll.

If you’re experiencing heightened anxiety, there’s lots you can do to help yourself. “Certainly don’t berate yourself for feeling that level of anxiety,” says Arroll, who suggests allowing yourself to say “this is a difficult thing to go through”, and “treating yourself with a huge amount of compassion whilst working through those thoughts. Even being aware of those thoughts is helpful.”

Talking to other people who’ve been through similar procedures can be helpful — but Arroll notes it’s important to seek positive stories, not just negative ones.

“Relaxation exercises are also brilliant,” adds Arroll. “And some people find hypnotherapy very beneficial.”

Keep moving

How active you can be depends on your individual health, and it’s crucial to listen to your own body and doctor here. But generally, having surgery doesn’t mean we should be holed up indoors and only thinking about bed rest.

“I’ve done a lot of work around exercise, encouraging people to just get up and go for a walk every day and move around, then their hearts and lungs are better to get them through the operation,” says McNally. “Getting outside for a walk gets your heart rate up, you’ll get endorphins from the exercise and boost serotonin in your brain, so you feel better, you feel more in control.”

The same applies during recovery. Your surgeon and physiotherapist will advise on activities you need to avoid, or exercises to help build strength back up — and it helps to focus on what you can do, rather than what you can’t.

Get ready for recovery

Nutrition is fundamental for optimal health, even more so when our bodies are healing, which takes up a lot more energy.

As well as ensuring you’re eating well before the surgery, think about what you’ll be eating during the recovery phase. You may not be able to get out to the shops or lift pots and pans for a while - so plan ahead. It’s all about making things as easy and comfortable for yourself when you leave hospital.

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