How do you heal after invasive surgery?

Just recently I had two athletes each bemoaning the fact that they were not successful in returning to training within 2 weeks of surgery. They had both had abdominal incisions and were having issues with the wound not sealing and a lot of pain in the surgical area.

So how soon can you start back to training?

I thought that it would be useful to understand the hard work that our bodies are doing in this time. The hard part of today’s ‘instant-everything’ world is that we are not giving ourselves a chance! But we can help ourselves by looking after the wound and the healing process.

The healing process is 4 stages – and last in total over a year and possibly two years!

The four stages of healing happen in an organised and sequential way – but they can progress better or worse, depending on factors associated with you (both as a patient and how you treat the wound). The second part of this blog will look at the factors for you to promote better healing.

Stage 1 seals the wound and is really quick!

The hemostasis phase closes the wound with a clot (usually in a matter of minutes/hours). Various components of the blood combine to create a mesh that forms a clot that adheres to the wound and closes it off. You need to protect that. There used to be a school of thought that you had to let the wound be open to air for the scab to harden properly, but the new hospital dressings allow it to do this without removing the dressing – so you will probably be advised by the hospital to keep the same dressing on for some time, in order to stop infection entering the area.

Stage 2 prepares the wound area for the growth of new tissue

The defensive/inflammatory phase focuses on destroying bacteria in the area and removing any debris, such that the wound area is all set for the growth of the new skin and tissue. White blood cells and microphages in the blood do this. It normally takes around 6 days and you can often see and/or feel swelling, redness of the skin, heat and pain. Obviously if the area keeps getting new infections into the area, then this period is extended. During this time it is absolutely critical to keep the scab dry – so you will need to find some good waterproof dressings or a different way of staying clean (wrapping cling-film over the area does not work!)

Stage 3 is the progressive filling and covering the wound, starting from the outside edges

The proliferative phase follows three distinct stages: 1) filling the wound, 2) contraction of the wound margins, and 3) covering the wound with new skin. You probably remember watching this as a child, as the new, pink skin forms from the shallowest and outside parts of the wound and eventually closes it up. It is a very clever process that remakes the blood vessels, tighten the open wound (often giving an uncomfortable feeling of tightness for a time) and then the skins cells work their way up from inside the body to form the boundary layer. This can all last anywhere from 4 to 24 days, and during this time dissolvable stitches on the surface should drop out. In order to protect the wound, it is still really important to keep the scan dry in order to protect it from damage, although to the latter end of the timeframe many nurses say that you can have a quick shower, but must keep away from baths and any kind of swimming pool/hot tubs etc until it is all completely sealed. Also across this time, a lot of nurses suggest gently putting Vaseline or moisturiser on the scab, in order to keep it flexible and stop it cracking and getting damaged.

Stage 4 is where the scar gains strength and flexibility

The maturation phase is where the tissues reorganise and remodel as they mature. During the proliferative phase the tissue gets laid down haphazardly, whereas the uninjured tissue is all lined up in a standard structure. Over the usual replacement of the layers of skin, this slowly gets addressed and as it does the way that the scar tissue moves stops being a big block and starts to move with the body and has strength. This phase can vary from 21 days to 2 years, and you can help it by gently massaging the wound and encouraging the tissue to realign. Also many nurses recommend rubbing in Bio Oil or a Vitamin E cream, which seems to visibly help the scar to fade in colour and settle back to flat with the skin.

So it all takes time

Back to our athletes – getting the wound to seal and be ready for the forces of movement in the area of the surgery is probably around 6 weeks, and within this time nurturing the area to maximise the healing will really help.

Things that you can do to encourage faster healing

There are many factors that mean that people heal differently. Some of these are inherent to you as the patient. Age has a direct effect on how fast we heal – as we get older, the skin is thinner and less elastic so we need to allow it more time. There are also factors associated with your body make-up in terms of how your body lays down the scar tissue, which you cannot change.

However, there are a number of things that you can look after.

  • What you eat is really important – You need to ensure that you are getting some good protein at each meal, and foods that are high in zinc, copper, vitamins A, B and C can also help the healing,
  • Good hydration really helps too, as this has a direct effect on the blood stream.
  • A good overnight sleep is key. The body’s repair mechanisms work hardest during the deep sleep cycle – so do make sure that you are getting your head down and getting a good quality 8 hour overnight sleep (or more if your body needs it)
  • Reducing inflammation – many people swear by arnica. Obviously the cream cannot be applied to open wounds, but I found major reduction in the bruising around where the cannula was inserted by using the cream on the adjacent skin areas. And you can buy oral arnica from homeopathic providers such as https://www.helios.co.uk/ and it generally does not have any interactions with other medication that you may be taking (although check with your own Doctor and/or surgeon)
  • Managing your weight – skin heals better when it has the blood supply into the tissue, which muscles give but fat does not. This helps the supply of all of the agents for the different phases of healing, as well as oxygenating the wound area.
  • Keeping the wound area dry and clean – this is so important for the right conditions for wound healing. This can be hard to do, but is a really significant factor. Try to get the right balance between waterproof dressings to stop external moisture and getting it open to the air if it is in an area of your body that stays damp and then covering it again.
  • Medication can slow healing down – some medications slow healing by impairing the inflammatory response, leading to a reduction in the collagen production which is key, especially in the 3rd and 4th stages. Treatments such as chemotherapy affect the new cells, so have a strong impact on healing, Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) that you may commonly take as over-the counter drugs can also slow down the process. Obviously you are likely to need medication after major surgery, but it will help if you can keep it to the minimum that you need and bear in mind that you may need to allow longer for your body to heal. 

So best of luck with your healing – do nurture your amazing body to do its thing! And after a major surgery taking a good month or 6 weeks off training that involves the juddering of impact, or the strain of strength training could be well worth it. It is also worth saying that there are other factors from surgery – for instance, anecdotally many Doctors say that it takes around 6 months for the body to completely recover from a general anaesthetic.

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