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8 Common Surgery Complications

What to do to reduce your risk of these post-surgery complications.
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Nobody looks forward to surgery. Who, after all, wants to go under the knife? But there is more to be concerned about than being cut open. All surgical procedures come with a risk of complications. They range from energy-sapping fatigue to potentially fatal blood clots. Here are eight of the most common.

1. Pain

Pain is less a complication than a simple fact of life following surgery. The question, then, is, how much pain will there be?

“Pain often depends on the degree of invasiveness,” says Matthew Kroh, MD, a surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic who specializes in laparoscopic and robotic surgery. With the types of surgery Kroh performs, many of which are minimally invasive, post-op pain is much lower than it was before such procedures were developed. “Recovery from pain is so much faster now,” he says. Still, he wants his patients to know that when they wake up, it’s going to hurt.

“I’m very open with my patients,” he says. “I try to oversell the pain. That way, they are pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t hurt as much as they thought it would. Eighty percent of my patients do better than I tell them they will.”

2. Partially Collapsed Lung (Atelectasis)

A very common complication after surgery, it occurs when a patient is not able to breathe in enough air to fill the lungs. Post-op pain is one of the primary culprits, Kroh says. “It hurts to breathe.”

The result? Mucus, normally cleared by breathing and coughing, builds up in the lungs, and that can cause pneumonia, especially in older patients, Kroh says.

Warning signs include shortness of breath and faster heart beat.

After some surgical procedures, you may be given an incentive spirometer, which is a device that gauges your inhalations and can help you achieve a goal of taking several deep breaths multiple times a day.

3. Blood Clots

Clots most often occur following orthopedic procedures, but they can occur in any patient, Kroh says. Smokers, morbidly obese people, and immobile patients are most at risk for clots, which usually form in the legs.

However, those clots can migrate to the lungs, where they can cause a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism.

Warning signs include swelling in the affected leg and calf pain. Shortness of breath and chest pain may be signs that the clot has moved to the lungs.

4. Fatigue and Lack of Energy

This is something that patients often underestimate, Kroh says. “Some patients expect that they can be discharged and get right back to work. But general anesthesia causes fatigue that can last for some time, and energy levels will also take time to get back to normal.”

Kroh tells his patients that they likely won’t be able to work a full day for at least a week following surgery. “It’s 2 to 3 days before they are even feeling 70%.”

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