Common Complications After Surgery

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on August 19, 2022
5 min read

Even though it's planned and well-intentioned, the basic fact is that when you have surgery, someone is cutting through your skin and tinkering with your insides. Your body is going to react to that, just like it does when you accidentally cut or bump yourself.

Often, your doctor can give you an idea of what to expect afterward. Sometimes there will be complications, too -- things that aren't a normal part of the healing process. While the most common ones aren't usually serious, some, like blood clots, can become dangerous. And they'll slow your recovery.

Pay attention to what's happening to your body and how you feel in the days and weeks after your surgery. If you're concerned or something seems "off," call your doctor.

Nearly everyone has some pain after surgery. How much will depend on what type of procedure you've had and how healthy you were before you went into the operating room.

Many procedures now are less "invasive" -- in the end, it hurts less and you recover faster. And there are plenty of options for managing your pain. Don't tough it out. Talk to your doctor before your surgery about your options and what's best for you.

When your pain is well-controlled, you'll be more willing to move again, and that's key to getting back to your daily routine. You'll also be also less likely to have complications like blood clots or pneumonia.

When you wake up from "being under," you won't be feeling your best. Common complaints include:

These symptoms usually don't last long.

Severe reactions to anesthesia are rare, but they do happen. For some people, confusion and memory loss can last as long as a week. And certain people are at greater risk of long-term memory loss. Talk to your doctor about these risks if you have:

  • Heart disease
  • Alzheimer's
  • Parkinson's
  • Lung disease
  • A past stroke

Anesthesia hampers your normal breathing and stifles your urge to cough. After chest or abdominal surgery, it could hurt to breathe in deeply or push air out. Mucus may build up in your lungs.

You may not have any symptoms. But if a large part of your lung collapses or stops inflating, it can cause:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Rapid breathing and heart rate
  • Blue lips or skin

To prevent a collapsed lung, your doctor may have you use a device called an incentive spirometer. It measures your breathing and helps you practice taking slow, deep breaths.

Get up and move around as soon as you can after surgery. Try to cough to help clear fluid from your lungs and let them re-inflate.

Most of them are minor, affecting just the skin around the surgical cut. They slow the healing process. But sometimes one can become severe and even life-threatening.

Watch out for:

  • Redness and swelling around the cut
  • Fluid or pus draining from the wound
  • Fever

Generally, fewer than 3 people out of 100 will get an infection after surgery. But your chances go up if you're older, you smoke, you're overweight, or you have diabetes or other medical issues. The risk is also higher with an emergency operation or a surgery that lasts more than a couple of hours.

Your doctors, nurses, and other health-care providers should clean their hands and all tools and devices they use thoroughly. While you're recovering, carefully follow your doctor's instructions for caring for your cut. Wash your hands before you do. When friends and family come to visit, ask them to clean their hands, too, with soap and water or hand sanitizer.

Some types of anesthesia can make it hard for you to pee. If you feel like you need to go but can't, your doctor may have to put a small tube called a catheter into your urethra to help you empty your bladder. Usually it's a short-term problem, but it can lead to an infection or bladder damage if it's not treated.

Constipation is also common after surgery. Anesthesia can cause it. So can certain pain medications, a change in your diet, or being in bed for a long time.

Your doctor may prescribe laxatives or stool softeners to help keep your bowels moving. Stay well-hydrated. Get up and move around when your doctor says it's OK.

Deep vein thrombosis (DVT) can be a problem especially after hip or leg surgery. It's a blood clot in a vein deep inside your thigh or belly. It may make your leg swollen, red, and painful, or it may not cause any symptoms at all.

DVT can be dangerous because if the clot breaks free, it can travel to your lungs and block blood flow. This is called a pulmonary embolism. Symptoms include:

Often, these are the first signs you'll have of trouble, and it's a medical emergency.

A clot is most likely to form in the first few days after surgery. Your best bet for avoiding it is to get moving as soon as you can. Even simple leg lifts in bed can boost your circulation and lower your chances of DVT.

It doesn't seem like your muscles would weaken after a few days of resting in bed, but they can. Even young, healthy adults lose about 1% of their muscles on a day of complete bed rest. For older adults, it's up to 5% every day.

The weaker you are, the longer it will take you to recover completely. So sit up and move when you can. Get out of bed as soon as it's safe to. Eat nutritious foods to help you heal and keep your energy up.