Feeling Tired After Surgery

What to Do About Fatigue and Exhaustion After Surgery

Fatigue After surgery, tired after surgery
Fatigue Can Be Expected After Surgery. Image: © Andrea Morini/Getty Images

Fatigue is very common after having surgery.  Even minor surgical procedures, such as outpatient surgeries, can leave the patient feeling very tired.  Major procedures, especially those that require several days of recovery in the hospital, can result in fatigue that lasts for an extended period of time. 

Is Fatigue Normal After Surgery?

Fatigue is often normal after having surgery, typically fatigue improves as the recovery period progresses.

  That means that an individual may not feel better each day, but from week to week there should be steady progress back to normal levels of energy.  Exhaustion, rather than just feeling fatigued or tired, may be present in the first few days following a major surgery, but should not persist past the initial recovery phase.  

Fatigue can come and go.  You may feel more energetic on a Monday, be very active and perhaps over do it somewhat, then feel very tired on Tuesday as a result.  Wednesday may result in feeling energetic again. 

When is Fatigue After Surgery Abnormal?

Fatigue should pass as the recovery progresses.  Increasing fatigue during the recovery phase should be seen as abnormal and should be discussed with the surgeon.   The tiredness that is felt after surgery should improve.  A lack of improvement in the weeks following your procedure is also not normal.  

Reasons For Fatigue After Surgery

There are multiple reasons for fatigue after surgery, some of which are a normal part of surgery, and others may be unrelated to the surgical process.

  If fatigue is long-lasting and does not seem to be improving with an otherwise normal recovery, it is worth investigating potential causes with your primary care provider or surgeon.

Normal Healing Process: Some fatigue is absolutely normal after surgery.  It would be far stranger to feel wonderful than to feel tired in the days after surgery.

Anesthesia: The medications used during surgery to provide anesthesia to the patient are known to cause fatigue.  Younger and healthier individuals will find that anesthesia wears off much more quickly than it does in older and less healthy individuals.  As the body rids itself of anesthesia, fatigue should dramatically improve.

Anemia: This is a condition caused by a lack of healthy red blood cells.  Bleeding during surgery can result in a reduction in the number of red blood cells an individual has in circulation.  The lower the number of red blood cells, the greater than fatigue.  While anemia may be caused by blood loss in surgery, there are other causes of anemia that should be addressed if the problem doesn’t resolve in the weeks following surgery. Anemia is often accompanied by a poor tolerance for physical activity and bruising easily.

Lack of Oxygen:  Some people find that they breathe differently after surgery because it hurts to cough or take a deep breath.  This can lead to pneumonia, which can cause serious complications during the recovery period.

  Sleep apnea, which is a problem where individuals stop breathing for short periods of time while sleeping, can be more severe when people are taking pain medication.  

Infection:  The presence of infection can cause a dramatic increase in fatigue, especially   serious infections.  

Fatigue Before Surgery: According to one study, the best way to predict fatigue after surgery is to look at fatigue levels prior to surgery.  If the patient is experiencing high levels of fatigue prior to their procedure, fatigue levels can be expected to be high after surgery.

Poor NutritionEating well after surgery is essential for fueling the healing process.  Incisions heal better and recovery moves along faster when proper nutrition is emphasized. 

Medication:  Pain medications can make people feel sleepy and even confused.  Prescription pain medications often cause an increase in the amount of sleep and feelings of fatigue.

Improving Fatigue After Surgery

If you are feeling fatigued after surgery, there are some simple steps that you can take to improve energy levels.  

  • Hydrate: Drinking ample fluids, particularly water, can help improve energy levels.
  • Eat Well: Good nutrition is the most basic defense against fatigue.
  • Minimize Pain Medication: Take the pain medication you need and no more.  Too much pain medication means too much sedation.
  • Don’t Do Too Much: Pushing to do more activity too soon often means a day of recovery .  Increase your activity level gently. 

Sources:

Physiological and psychological influences on postoperative fatigue. Anesthesia and Analgesia. Accessed July, 2015. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12401642

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