Symptoms to Expect When You're Recovering From Surgery

Are headaches a normal part of recovery?

checking thermometer
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Once you have been discharged from the hospital post surgery, you will need to know when your recovery has changed from a normal recovery to one that may need medical intervention. Most patients have an uneventful recovery: they experience no complications, or only minor issues, and return to their normal life on schedule.

For others, unexpected issues arise during the recovery, leading to a need for additional treatment—and in some cases, urgent emergency treatment.

Luckily, the need for emergency medical attention is not common, but you should still know when to seek care or call 911.

Do Not Ignore Medical Issues After Surgery

Be mindful of unexpected symptoms, complications, or other issues that you were not told to expect. For example, if you begin to experience shortness of breath after surgery and you were not told to expect shortness of breath, this issue should be addressed by either the surgeon or emergency room staff.

If you have any of the following symptoms in the weeks following surgery, be sure to call your surgeon or family physician for further instruction. You may be asked to report to the emergency room, or your physician may feel that your symptoms can be managed at home. If you cannot reach your surgeon or physician within a reasonable period of time, proceed to the emergency room or urgent care.

Headache After Surgery

If your doctor hasn’t told you to expect a severe headache after your procedure and you do not normally suffer from severe headaches, you should seek medical attention if one occurs.

A severe headache can be caused by a blood clot traveling to the brain after surgery, a condition commonly known as a stroke or cerebral vascular accident. Strokes are more common after surgery, as blood clots happen more frequently after having a procedure and these clots then travel to the brain.

In fact, surgery or no surgery, a severe headache or "the worse headache of my life" always means medical attention should be sought.

Minor headaches after surgery can be caused by new medications, lack of sleep, or even neck pain from the way you were positioned during your procedure. Some people may experience a headache after having anesthesia. Minor headaches are not concerning for most—it is the severe headache that warrants emergency treatment.

Signs of Stroke Include:

  • One sided weakness
  • Confusion
  • Facial droop
  • Trouble speaking
  • Trouble following simple instructions
  • Loss of balance
  • Loss of vision
  • Headache

If these signs and symptoms are newly—and suddenly—present, call 911 for emergency treatment.

ABC's: Airway, Breathing and Circulation

In medicine, there is a logic to the order of how issues are addressed. Airway first, followed by breathing, followed by circulation. This means that if a person has food in their airway, they have stopped breathing and their heart has stopped, we would first try to clear the airway followed by CPR with both breaths and compressions.

As a patient, the ABC's are a reminder that you should not ignore any issues that arise after surgery that affects your airway, breathing, or circulation.

These tend to be the most serious complications and need to be addressed quickly.

Fever Over 101 Degrees

A slight fever is not uncommon after having surgery, but a fever over 101 degrees may indicate that you have an infection. A fever that does not respond to treatment with acetaminophen or ibuprofen is especially worrisome and should not be ignored.

If you have a fever, particularly a high fever or one accompanied by chills, report this change to your surgeon.

Unexplained Leg Pain

One of the major risks of surgery is the development of blood clots in the legs, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

These clots can be very dangerous as they can travel through the bloodstream to the lungs or brain, causing difficulty breathing, a stroke, or other problems. The legs are the most common place for a blood clot to occur after a procedure, but they can also happen in other areas, so don't ignore unexplained swelling or pain.

Bleeding, Pus, Drainage or Streaks from Your Incision

Small amounts of clear drainage may come out of your incision in the days after surgery, but fluid coming from the incision that looks like pus or smells foul is a sign of infection. Blood should be minimal and should not increase during the days following surgery, but continue to improve day after day.

Red streaks on your skin that move away from the incision can also be a warning sign of infection. Infection is typically accompanied by fever, but many medications used after surgery are known to reduce fever, so don't assume a lack of fever means a lack of infection.

Your Incision Begins to Pull Apart

If your incision begins to separate, your surgeon should be contacted immediately. Cover the wound with a moist bandage or clean piece of cloth, then seek medical attention. This complication may be prevented by holding pressure on the incision when coughing, rising from a chair, or sneezing.

There may be tiny gaps in your incision, especially with movement or the loss of a single suture or staple, but a larger gap should be addressed with a phone call to the surgeon's office, at the minimum.

Inability to Urinate or Have a Bowel Movement

Contact your surgeon’s office if you are constipated or having difficulty urinating after surgery. Straining to have a bowel movement or urinate can increase the pressure in your abdomen and put stress on your incisions, and these symptoms can be signs of more severe complications. Do not use over-the-counter remedies without your surgeon’s approval.

If you are unable to urinate at all for more than six hours, this is considered an emergency and a trip to the emergency room is necessary.

Bloody, Very Dark, or 'Tarry' Bowel Movements

These are signs of blood in your stool and should be reported immediately unless your physician specifically explained that you may experience some blood in the stool in the days immediately after surgery.

Coughing Up or Vomiting Blood

These are signs of a potential medical emergency, where blood is in the stomach or lungs. Contact your surgeon or seek medical attention immediately. Blood in vomit may look like used coffee grounds, and may be more black than red.

Severe, Unexplained, or Uncontrollable Pain

If your pain was manageable after surgery but then becomes significantly worse or uncontrollable with no clear explanation, there may be a surgical complication. Pain is typically the worst on the second or third day after surgery. If your pain is improving daily, then suddenly becomes significantly worse for no apparent reason, this is a red flag and should not be ignored.

Chest Pain

Chest pain should never be ignored, especially after surgery. Chest pain can be a sign of a serious heart problem, especially when accompanied by symptoms including vomiting, shortness of breath, arm pain, weakness or fainting. Do not drive yourself to the emergency room if you are experiencing chest pain.

Difficulty Breathing

A change in your ability to breathe is a significant problem after surgery and may indicate a life-threatening change, such as a blood clot in the lung. Do not ignore any problems with your breathing that begin after surgery. Seek medical attention.

Inability to Eat

If you have been discharged home to recover, your surgeon believes that you are able to obtain adequate nutrition from your diet. If that is not the case, your ability to eat changes or you cannot keep food and fluids down, your surgeon should be notified.

Increasing Weakness, Inability to Care for Yourself

If you seem to be getting weaker instead of stronger after your discharge from the hospital, or you are not able to care for yourself, your recovery may be in jeopardy. Be aware that you should slowly be getting stronger after your procedure, not having increasing difficulty with normal activities.  

Passing out and fainting are extreme versions of weakness and fatigue, they may also indicate problems that are even more serious. These symptoms should always result in emergency medical attention, preferably by activating 911.

A Word From Verywell

If you suspect you are experiencing a serious complication, it is essential that you not ignore what is happening. You may be tempted to wait until morning to call your surgeon, or you may be hesitant to call 911 for what may turn out to be nothing, but ignoring a serious problem can only make it worse.

If you are concerned enough that you are reading this article, you should be—at the minimum—calling your surgeon and preparing to go to the emergency room.


Medline Plus. When to Use the Emergency Room.

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