How Rehab Can Help You Recover From Surgery

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on January 19, 2022

You've had your surgery and your mind tells you it's time to return to your old routines. But your body says, "Not so fast." The truth is, before you can get back to business as usual, you'll likely need some rehab to regain your strength.

With the help of a physical therapist and other specialists, you'll learn the best and safest way to walk, bathe, get dressed, and take care of yourself. And you'll get exercises to make your muscles stronger and help you improve the way you move the part of your body where you had your surgery.

It can speed your recovery no matter what kind of operation you've had, be it a joint replacement, heart surgery, or a procedure to treat cancer. You'll likely begin while you're still in the hospital. A therapist will help you get out of bed and start to walk again. You'll also do other exercises to get you ready to go home.

After you're released from the hospital, you might finish your recovery with a stay at a rehab center. Depending on the type of surgery you had, you might be there for a few weeks or months. Or your doctor may suggest you visit an "outpatient" center, which means you live at home but get therapy during regular appointments one or more times a week. Sometimes a therapist will come to your home.

It takes time and effort, but it's worth it. Keep in mind some key goals of your rehab program:

  • Improve movement and range of motion in the part of your body where you had surgery
  • Strengthen your muscles
  • Reduce pain
  • Help you walk again -- first with crutches or a walker, and then on your own
  • Teach you to do daily activities, such as climb stairs, get up from a chair or bed, get in and out of a car, get dressed, and bathe

Different experts help with different parts of your rehab. Some people who might be on your team:

Physiatrist. They are doctors who specialize in rehab. They tailor a plan to your needs and oversee the program to make sure it's going well.

Physical therapist. They teach you exercises to improve your strength and the range you have when you move your arm, leg, or whatever part of your body had the operation.

Occupational therapist. They help you regain the skills you need for some basic activities in your everyday life. They might teach you how to cook meals, get dressed, shower or take a bath, and use the toilet. They'll also show you how to use gadgets that can help you care for yourself more easily, such as a dressing stick or elastic shoelaces. Some occupational therapists will visit your home to make sure it's safe and easy for you to get around.

Dietitian. They'll help you plan healthy meals. If your doctor has told you to avoid salt, sugar, or certain foods after your surgery, the dietitian can help you find other choices.

Speech therapist. They help with skills like talking, swallowing, and memory. Speech therapy can be helpful after surgery that affects your brain.

Nurses. They care for you if you're staying for a few weeks or months in a rehab center. They may also come to your home to help track your recovery and help you with the transition to life back at home.

Psychologist or counselor. It's natural to feel stressed out or depressed after your surgery. A mental health professional can help you manage your worries and treat any depression.

It can take many months to recover from an operation, but be patient. A lot depends on your overall health and the kind of procedure you had. Work closely with your rehab team and follow their instructions. Your hard work will pay off.

Show Sources


Houston Methodist: "A Patient's Guide to Anterior Cervical Discectomy and Fusion." "A Patient's Guide to Rehabilitation Following Hip Fracture Surgery."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Care and Recovery After Brain Surgery."

St. Vincent Indianapolis: "Interdisciplinary Rehab Team."

University of Rochester Medical Center: "Outpatient Rehabilitation."

UW Health: "What to Expect After Total Hip Replacement Surgery."

Wake Forest Baptist Health: "Knees."

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