Returning to normal activity after abdominal surgery

February 06, 2013

Updated: June 15, 2018

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  • After abdominal surgery, how quickly can you bounce back?
  • It largely depends on what kind of surgery you had — open or minimally invasive.

How do you know when it’s OK to return to normal activity after your abdominal surgery?

For general day to day activities not involving heavy lifting, your body will tell you.  

A surgeon’s instructions about taking it easy after a procedure “is not really about restrictions,” said Swedish’s Matthew A. Johnston, MD, FACS, who performs many abdominal surgeries. “It’s more about how people are feeling.”

The danger of trying to do too much, too soon after surgery is that a patient can suffer a hernia, when an organ pushes through the weakened abdominal wall. That’s a serious — and distressingly common — consequence that could lead to additional surgeries and a delayed recovery. 

Yet, in general, when a post-operative patient feels ready for activity, Dr. Johnston tells him it’s a reasonable time to start.

Two types of surgery; two types of recovery

How soon will it be all right to resume activity? That’s highly variable according to the patient, the problem that triggered surgery and, most crucially, the kind of surgery the doctor performs.

Dr. Johnston and other surgeons try to perform procedures in as minimally invasive a way as possible. He said the vast majority of his surgeries are laparoscopic or robotic, meaning they are performed using narrow or skinny instruments that enter the body through one or more small incisions. 

But a minority of the time, such as when a patient suffers a middle-of-the-night case of perforated diverticulitis or a minimally invasive approach is not safe, a doctor must perform “open surgery,” which involves a major incision. In those cases, recovery takes longer while the abdominal wall repairs itself. 

In both cases, surgeons close the openings with suture, which must be allowed to heal. That’s the time when activity is restricted, to avoid tearing the incision open again. After the sutures have held the tissue together for a time, the body takes over, filling the opening with scar tissue. 

Clearly, said Dr. Johnston, a person’s body bounces back a lot more quickly from four, one-inch incisions than from the major trauma of open surgery.

What is restricted activity?

For his patients who underwent laparoscopic procedures, Dr. Johnson says he tells them to avoid lifting 15 pounds or more for two or three weeks, and to avoid any movements that cause straining, or causing the abdominal muscles to flex. To avoid straining during bowel movements, especially if the patient is on pain medication, Dr. Johnston advises them to eat high-fiber foods or take stool softeners.

Patients who undergo open surgeries should limit their lifting for at least a month or longer, depending on the surgery. Dr. Johnston noted that such patients are likely to feel run down for a week or two as their bodies channel excess energy to the healing process.

If abdominal surgery is in your future, you and your doctor will discuss his or her surgical approach. When you’ve gotten past the surgery, then you can discuss the pace of your recovery.

If you’re looking for medical care, you can find a Swedish provider near you in our online directory. Learn more about post-surgery activity and what to expect.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.