(This was a previous guest blog I wrote for my friend Dr. Kristin Prentiss Ott, MD on www.kristinprentissott.com October 2015)
My past work experience has included years working in the hospital including the surgical wards. Now, I specialize in outpatient orthopedic physical therapy. I see mostly patients who want to avoid surgery. I am a proponent of keeping the body intact whenever possible. However, there are times when accidents happen or it is necessary to have surgery in order to get back to living life.
Sometimes it happens.
You take good care of yourself and exercise regularly, but then you fall skiing and tear your ACL. Often, to keep up that same level of activity, the ACL will need to be surgically repaired.
Or you may have been a college athlete that played football and now have severe hip arthritis in your 60s that requires a total hip replacement.
Like I said, sometimes it happens. And if you are going to have surgery planned or not, here are a few tips to help you to optimize recovery, not faster, but optimally.
1. Move whatever you can, often and safely.
Start with moving the body parts that didn’t have surgery. If you had knee surgery, start with moving your arms, then hips, opposite knee, then ankles. You need to move the surgery site, but only when your surgeon says it is safe. Sit up and take deep breaths. Stand or walk when you are safe and breathe.
Move whatever you can, whenever it is safe and don’t stop. The movement helps keep the blood pumping, the lymph draining, and the muscles contracting. My general recommendation is: every hour you are awake, move your body some way, some how - any way, any how as long as you are following surgical precautions. This may require help (see #2).
2. Call in the troops.
Don’t be shy about asking for help.
3. Drink bone broth.
Yes, this is what your grandmother used to make when she made homemade chicken soup. Specifically, using long bones from beef allows for additional bone marrow, which is wonderful for healing as well as calcium from the bones that is readily available to absorb (so long as you get some vitamin D, see #5) for your body to use to help heal that fracture. The bone broth is easy to digest and soothing on the stomach especially after anesthesia. Making homemade bone broth is simple to do. Here is a recipe.
4. Eat real food, including protein.
It is always best to eat real food whether you are having surgery or not. But for certain, the best way to get important vitamins and minerals that are bioavailable to assist in the healing process is from real food. That means foods that are as close to nature as they were intended. Whole food. Nutrient rich foods like salmon, broccoli, spinach, berries, etc.
It is NOT food in packages.
Those foods are often heavily refined and processed in a way that renders them nutrient deficient and in fact require your body’s stored nutrients to process them and you get nothing in return. Not to mention prepackaged food and drinks often include a host of things that hamper healing like sugar, trans fatty acids, and additives.
Specifically, in the case of an orthopedic surgery, it is important to include healthy protein. Protein is the only source of a complete amino acid profile that our body requires for structure (tissue, bone, teeth, skin), movement (muscles, ligaments, tendons), protection (skin, immune system), energy (glucose), transport (across cell membranes), communication (hormones and cell signaling), and regulation of fluid balance and pH. Every single one of those bodily processes has an important impact on your ability to heal from injury and especially surgery.
5. Get outside in the sun as soon as possible.
Vitamin D is converted from the cholesterol in your blood in the presence of full spectrum sunlight. Vitamin D is not only critical for calcium absorption, but it is also important for joint health, metabolic health and even your brain. Deficiency of vitamin D has been linked to osteopenia (bone loss), osteoporosis (severe bone loss resulting often in fracture), cancer, Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis and even cardiovascular disease.1,2
Early inflammatory arthritis, osteoarthritis of the knee and autoimmune diseases have also been linked to vitamin D deficiency.3-6 Although eating foods high in vitamin D like fatty saltwater fish is helpful, it is still important to get sun. As a safe rule spend time in the sun, but don’t burn. Three 8-minute stints is usually adequate. If you have had surgery, it is important to keep your wound or scar covered. This new skin is more sensitive to the sun's rays and you don’t want to promote scar tissue formation. As an added bonus, sun exposure will also help with your circadian rhythm, which helps with sleep-wake cycles (see #6).
6. Sleep when you are tired.
Rest is critical for recovery and repair. Yet, when we are limited or recovering from surgery we are doing things that negatively impact our normal sleep cycle. Moving often and getting sunshine will help regulate the circadian rhythm. Watching endless TV and computer screen time is like looking at the sun and has effects on our sleep-wake cycle. So, go to sleep when it is dark. Move your body when it is day-time. Turn off screens 2 hours before bed. Don’t watch TV in bed. Make a schedule and a routine to optimize your rest.
In the end, having a plan for recovery will lead you to optimal healing. You may even find that eating well, moving well, and sleeping well will help even decrease your need for pain medications.
Remove. Replace. Restore.
Remove stagnancy and helplessness. Remove refined and processed foods, especially sugar. Remove excessive screen time to fill your day.
Replace with movement any way you can safely. Replace with help from family, friends, or a physical therapist. Eat nutrient rich whole foods including protein and bone broth. Get safe sunshine. Go to bed when it is dark.
Restore optimal healing and recovery from injury or surgery.
Eat well. Move well. Sleep well. Thrive on.
1. Baggerly CA, Cuomo RE, French CB, et al. Sunlight and vitamin D: Necessary for public health. J Am Coll Nutr. 2015;34(4):359-365.
2. Lieberman S, Bruning N. The real vitamin and mineral book. New York, New York: The Penguin Group; 2007.
3. Park YE, Kim BH, Lee SG, et al. Vitamin D status of patients with early inflammatory arthritis. Clin Rheumatol. 2015;34(2):239-246.
4. Sanghi D, Mishra A, Sharma AC, et al. Does vitamin D improve osteoarthritis of the knee: A randomized controlled pilot trial. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 2013;471(11):3556-3562.
5. Broder AR, Tobin JN, Putterman C. Disease-specific definitions of vitamin D deficiency need to be established in autoimmune and non-autoimmune chronic diseases: A retrospective comparison of three chronic diseases. Arthritis Res Ther. 2010;12(5):R191.
6. Park KY, Chung PW, Kim YB, et al. Serum vitamin D status as a predictor of prognosis in patients with acute ischemic stroke. Cerebrovasc Dis. 2015;40(1-2):73-80.
Photo credit: Flikr, Roger Mommaerts, creative commons license:
Dr Carolyn Dolan DPT, Cert MDT, MSHN
Where physical therapy, nutrition and lifestyle meet, because how you live your life determines whether or not you soar. Inspiring action with information so you can reduce pain, optimize healing and improve function naturally during recovery from injury, surgery or painful condition. This is a website for the open-minded; obstinate need not apply.