Nine tips from a plastic surgeon and patient for a smoother recovery
Don't make it harder than it needs to be
There's no way around it: Recovery from plastic surgery is uncomfortable at best. Discomfort during the acute recovery phase, meaning the first few days post-op, should be expected, but pain should not be – especially not now, given all the advancements in technology and technique, says NYC-based plastic surgeon Dr. Alan Matarasso, former president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
"When I first started operating, we would admit patients the night before and the next day, do their surgery; two days later, they'd go home," he explains. "Now basically everything I do is outpatient, so they come in and, within three hours, go home or to a recovery facility with a nurse."
By sending patients home, surgeons are jumpstarting the patient recovery process. But on the flip side, this quicker timeline makes it even more important that the surgeon and patient prepare for the recovery because the patient will be on his or her own – and no longer being observed around the clock by medical staff.
"It's important that the surgeon and his or her team recognize that although we do this every day, the patient is only doing it once and it's going to be anxiety provoking," says Dr. Matarasso. "The key is that the patients are prepared in advance for things to recognize and to participate in their own care."
Here, Dr. Matarasso outlines his top 9 tips to ensure your recovery is as relaxed and smooth sailing as it can be. And as a former plastic surgery patient myself, I add in my two cents on the unusual things I found helpful.
Read the pre-op materials
Now that most procedures are outpatient, surgeons have prepared booklets and other literature for patients to review, process and help formulate any remaining questions before the day of their surgery so there are no surprises.
Typically, these materials are totally comprehensive, from "what to expect leading into the surgery, the surgery itself and post-op," says Dr. Matarasso, "so that patients have a good awareness in advance of what to anticipate."
Wear the right clothes
Yes, you read that right. Clothing choices for your surgery day may seem a little trivial, but it's one of the smaller, subtle details that can make all the difference between a manageable experience immediately after your operation and a trickier one.
"Let's say for a breast augment, we want something that buttons in front so the patient doesn't have to raise her arms over their head," explains Dr. Matarasso, as chest movement will be restricted and taking off a t-shirt would be infinitely harder than fussing with a few buttons. A blepharoplasty (eyelid surgery) patient shouldn't wear a top that comes up past the collarbone, in order to give the surgeon constriction-free access to the face.
Buy groceries and other items in advance
According to Dr. Matarasso, the patient-surgeon goal should be for the patient to arrive home after surgery and "not be scrambling," but rather have every need already in the house."
For example, a surgeon may recommend eating fruit-based popsicles or crackers the week after surgery, in case the patient doesn't have much of an appetite. By purchasing these items in advance, you'll be prepared mentally and physically for the common side effect of appetite suppression. "People say, 'I'm not thirsty' or 'I'm not hungry,'" says Dr. Matarasso. "Well, now's not the time – we want you to be well-hydrated people and, very often, we recommend Gatorade intake over water because of the electrolytes."
In addition to food and sports drinks, other items to have at the ready are surgery specific, but could include a compression garment or special type of clothing, a humidifier and "absolutely having prescriptions for medication already filled," says Dr. Matarasso. "It's imperative for patients to have these things in advance – and we go over this information with them, too. We have frequent contact leading into the surgery and post-operatively."
Untwist beverage caps before surgery
Another simple task that sounds silly but will pay dividends down the road is opening those bottles of Gatorade that your surgeon will probably instruct you to drink – especially if you're getting a breast procedure.
On the morning of my surgery, I opened all the Gatorade caps – which can be really difficult. That afternoon, a few hours after my surgery, I was sure glad I did. Even with all the advanced preparation and relentlessly asking my plastic surgeon questions, moving my arms those first two days was trickier than I anticipated. Twisting open a tight plastic cap would have been uncomfortable.
Keep your phone close
After your procedure, your surgeon or someone from the office is going to call you over the next few days to check-in. You'll want to be ready to ask follow-up questions or share any anxieties you may have.
I know this tip from personal experience: The day after my surgery, I left my phone unattended for hours (I was either sleeping or relaxing elsewhere in my apartment) while my surgeon attempted to contact me to see how I was feeling. In the interim before I called him back, his anxiety grew until he reached me, and I confirmed that everything was peachy keen. But this was a valuable lesson for me: Remember that recovery is a two-way street, and your surgeon is just as invested in your recovery as you are.
Take it easy, but not too easy
This one, Dr. Matarasso says, is operation-specific, but generally he wants his patients up and walking around almost immediately after surgery. "What we don't want is for the patient to just lay around," he cautions. "I tell patients when they're not ambulating that it's okay to lay in bed and rest, but I want you to bend your knees toward your chest and wiggle your ankles so the blood circulates."
Skip the opioids if you can
This is good advice, surgery or not. "I think collectively, surgeons are getting better with pain management," says New York City plastic surgeon Dr. Melissa Doft. "In some cases, you really need the narcotic, but most patients are not using them for more than one or two days at most."
In my experience of receiving a breast augmentation, I took Percocet a few hours after my surgery but switched to Extra Strength Tylenol the next day and didn't need to take the opioid again.
It's normal to ask if things are normal
Your surgeon wants you to have the easiest recovery possible. Keeping open lines of communication and feeling comfortable enough with your surgeon to ask the stereotypical "embarrassing" questions is all part of the recovery game.
"The information means more as the patients go through the recovery process," says Dr. Matarasso. "For example, with breast implants, I tell patients to avoid any strain on the chest, whether that's bending forward or going to the bathroom, but it makes a lot more sense post-operatively once they've gone through it and felt it."
Eat a nutritious dinner before surgery
Speaking of the bathroom, constipation is another common side effect to watch out for and to take preventative steps to avoid. "Medicines around the time of surgery will cause constipation," explains Dr. Matarasso, who recommends taking a stool softener, and maybe a Metamucil-type supplement, depending on the operation and the patient's normative bowel habits, which you bet your surgeon will be addressing with you pre-op.
"Be aware by the second or third day, we want things to happen. If it goes longer, it could create a cascade of bad events," he says.
Be mindful of your eating habits leading up to your surgery day and don't exacerbate this potential side effect by eating a huge, sodium-filled or sugary meal the night before. Instead, set yourself up for success with something that covers all the nutritional bases.
To find a qualified plastic surgeon for any cosmetic or reconstructive procedure, consult a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. All ASPS members are board certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgery, have completed an accredited plastic surgery training program, practice in accredited facilities and follow strict standards of safety and ethics. Find an ASPS member in your area.