After Surgery: Discomforts and Complications

What are some common postoperative discomforts?

The amount of discomfort following surgery depends on many things, including the type of surgery performed. Typical discomforts may include:

  • Nausea and vomiting from general anesthesia

  • Sore throat (caused by the tube placed in the windpipe for breathing during surgery)

  • Soreness, pain, and swelling around the incision site

  • Restlessness and sleeplessness

  • Thirst

  • Constipation and gas (flatulence)

What complications may occur after surgery?

Sometimes, complications can occur after surgery. These are the most common complications.

Complications may include:

  • Shock. Shock is a severe drop in blood pressure that causes a dangerous reduction of blood flow throughout the body. Shock may be caused by blood loss, infection, brain injury, or metabolic problems. Treatment may include any or all of the following:

    • Stopping any blood loss

    • Helping with breathing (with mechanical ventilation if needed)

    • Reducing heat loss 

    • Giving intravenous (IV) fluids or blood

    • Providing oxygen

    • Prescribing medicines, for example, to raise blood pressure

  • Hemorrhage. Hemorrhage means bleeding. Rapid blood loss from the site of surgery, for example, can lead to shock. Treatment of rapid blood loss may include:

    • IV fluids or blood plasma

    • Blood transfusion

    • More surgery to control the bleeding

  • Wound infection. When bacteria enter the site of surgery, an infection can result. Infections can delay healing. Wound infections can spread to nearby organs or tissue, or to distant areas through the blood stream. Treatment of wound infections may include:

    • Antibiotics

    • Surgery or procedure to clean or drain the infected area 

  • Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and pulmonary embolism (PE). Together, these conditions are referred to as venous thromboembolism (VTE). This term is used because the conditions are very closely related. And, because their prevention and treatment is also closely related. A deep vein thrombosis is a blood clot in a large vein deep inside a leg, arm, or other parts of the body. Symptoms are pain, swelling, and redness in a leg, arm, or other area. If you have these symptoms, call your healthcare provider.

  • Pulmonary embolism. The clot can separate from the vein and travel to the lungs. This forms a pulmonary embolism. In the lungs, the clot can cut off the flow of blood. This is a medical emergency and may cause death. If you have the following symptoms, call 911 or get emergency help. Symptoms are chest pain, trouble breathing, coughing (may cough up blood), sweating, fast heartbeat, and fainting. Treatment depends on the location and size of the blood clot. It may include:

    • Anticoagulant medicines (blood thinners to prevent further clotting)

    • Thrombolytic medicines (to dissolve clots)

    • Surgery or other procedures

  • Lung (pulmonary) complications. Sometimes, pulmonary complications arise due to lack of deep breathing and coughing exercises within 48 hours of surgery. They may also result from pneumonia or from inhaling food, water, or blood, into the airways. Symptoms may include wheezing, chest pain, fever, and cough (among others).

  • Urinary retention. Temporary urine retention, or the inability to empty the bladder, may occur after surgery. Caused by the anesthetic, urinary retention is usually treated by the insertion of a catheter to drain the bladder until the patient regains bladder control. Sometimes medicines to stimulate the bladder may be given.

  • Reaction to anesthesia. Although rare, allergies to anesthetics do occur. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Treatment of allergic reactions includes stopping specific medicines that may be causing allergic reactions. Also, administering other medicines to treat the allergy.

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