Depression, Illness and Surgery: Signs and Symptoms

After Surgery: Signs and Symptoms of Depression or a Normal Recovery?

Mature female patient sitting on exam table in exam room looking down
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Depression and Illness

Depression is not uncommon after surgery, or even after a diagnosis that leads to surgery. Getting the news that your health isn't perfect and you need surgery, the financial pressures of obtaining health care and feeling bad physically can all trigger an episode of depression, or make depression that is already present worse.  Individuals with depression that is well controlled may find that they have "breakthrough" symptoms during an illness.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that feeling bad emotionally and feeling bad physically often go hand in hand.  The big problem is that many people don't identify what they are feeling as depression--which can be treated easily in most people--and instead think that they are feeling the effects of their physical illness.  

It can be challenging to differentiate between what happens during a typical recovery from surgery and depression symptoms. In fact, many of the symptoms, such as fatigue and irritability, are common when an individual is depressed AND during a recovery from surgery. 

So what is depression, exactly?

Depression is a serious illness psychological illness that can lead to impaired decision making, difficulty with day to day life and it can even lead to physical illness, such as slowing healing in some cases.

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

  • Eating significantly more or less than is normal
  • Sleeping significantly more or less than is normal
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty making decisions, even minor ones
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Feelings of hopelessness and despair
  • Feelings of anxiety, stress, agitation or restlessness
  • Thoughts of harming yourself or suicide - Seek immediate help
  • Thoughts of harming others - Seek immediate help

    Note that some of these physical symptoms are hard to distinguish from the after-effects of surgery -- since surgery can affect your sleep, appetite, and energy -- but those that affect the emotions should definitely trigger an assessment by a mental health professional.

    Stress, including emotional stress such as a diagnosis of illness, and physical stress such as surgery, can trigger depression. Physical conditions, including conditions that cause chronic pain, a shortened life expectancy or radical changes in lifestyle can also lead to depression. People with a family history or a personal history of depression may be more likely to develop depression in times of stress or illness.

    While there are many people who are given a serious and life-altering diagnosis, depression does not affect everyone in the same way. Being aware of the signs and symptoms of depression is important so that it can be quickly identified and treated. For some individuals, family and friends may identify the signs of depression before the depressed individual. 

    If you or a loved one experience depression symptoms for two weeks or longer, seek a professional assessment immediately. The symptoms that are common with surgery, such as fatigue and feeling low on energy, typically improve as the recovery progresses.

    Symptoms caused by depression are typically not improved with the surgery recovery. Two weeks is more than long enough to determine if the symptoms are improving with the passage of time or if they are more likely to be lingering.

    A Few Words About Depression and Heart Surgery

    There is a known but poorly understood link between having open heart surgery and experiencing depression. Many open heart surgery patients experience a profound depression after surgery, and this depression should be treated by a healthcare professional familiar with clinical depression.  

    While the depression may be triggered by surgery, it should be treated just like depression that occurs without surgery.

      That may mean antidepressant medication, therapy or other treatments that are typically used to treat this type of change in mood.

    More Information: Answers To Common Questions After Surgery


    Signs and Symptoms of Depression. National Institutes of Health.

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