What to Do About Common Problems After Surgery (2023)

Surgery is serious business, and it is a rare individual who has no complications after surgery. Most patients experience a minor complication or two, problems that resolve quickly and easily in the days following surgery. For some patients, surgery leads to more serious types of problems, such as pneumonia or an infection.

Avoiding these complications can lead to faster recovery after surgery.

What to Do About Common Problems After Surgery (1)

Pain After Surgery

Pain is probably the most common complaint that surgery patients have in the days and sometimes weeks following surgery. Pain is to be expected and can be managed with medication, but an expectation of no pain after a procedure is likely not realistic. Plan to manage your pain with medications ranging from over the counter medications like Tylenol or Ibuprofen or even prescription pain medications if prescribed by your surgeon.

Anesthesia Side Effects

The response to anesthesia after surgery is unique to the individual. Some wake up easily and with no unpleasant symptoms, others wake confused, agitated or nauseated. The best predictor for how you will wake from anesthesia is how you woke the last time you had it. If you woke up without side effects, that is great. If you woke up with severe nausea and vomiting, you are more likely than the average person to repeat the experience.

Nausea and Vomiting

Post-operative nausea and vomiting (PONV) is a side effect that leads to almost half of surgery patients feeling ill in the hours and days after surgery. Prevention is key. Make sure your anesthesia provider is aware of your previous experience and ask for a plan to prevent it from happening again. It is much easier to prevent this issue with medication than it is to treat it once the patient is ill and vomiting. Vomiting is also very painful after surgery, especially if the surgery required an abdominal incision.

Bleeding After Surgery

Some bleeding is considered normal after surgery, but a large amount of bleeding or bleeding that won’t stop is not. Report any bleeding that you notice, aside from minor expected bleeding, to the surgeon or hospital staff so that it can be treated before it becomes a serious issue.


Being on a ventilator during surgery can, unfortunately, lead to issues with breathing. While this complication is more common with individuals who have to remain on the ventilator after surgery has finished, it can also happen in individuals who are unwilling or unable to cough during their recovery.You may be provided with a device called an incentive spirometer when you are discharged home. This is a device that helps to take deep breaths, and it if provided, should be used to prevent atelectasis or pneumonia.

Blood Clots After Surgery

Blood clots are always a concern after surgery. Prevention, again, is key. A small blood clot can form in the leg, causing swelling and pain and can usually be prevented with medication. Even more serious is when a blood clot begins to move through the bloodstream, potentially traveling to the lungs where it becomes a pulmonary embolism--a life-threatening condition.

Sore Throat

If you had general anesthesia, which requires the placement of a breathing tube and being on the ventilator during the surgery, a sore throat is a common issue after surgery.Standard sore throat treatments, such as lozenges, drinking hot or cold fluids and throat sprays are usually adequate treatments.The sore throat is typically gone within a day or two, possibly a few days longer if the breathing tube was in place for an extended period of time for a longer procedure or prolonged recovery.

Fatigue After Surgery

Fatigue after surgery is a common complicationand an expected one. The body is stressed by the effects of anesthesia and surgery. The body is working hard to repair the incisions and loss of blood, and feeling tired is a normal part of recovering from surgery. While feeling tired is normal, feeling exhausted is not typical.

Confusion/Delirium After Surgery

Confusion after anesthesia is especially common in older patients. Confusion can also lead to delirium, a more serious type of confusion after anesthesia. If the patient has dementia or other issues with memory or confusion prior to surgery, they are more likely to have problems after a procedure.

Infection/Sepsis After Surgery

Preventing infection is of huge importance after surgery and it can be as easy aswashing your hands properlyand frequently. Antibiotics are often prescribed after surgery, even if no signs or symptoms of infection are present, in order to prevent this issue. Identifying the signs and symptoms of infectionearly can lead to a faster recovery, as an infection will dramatically slow or even stop the healing process.

Difficulty Urinating After Surgery

Trouble urinating after surgery is a very common issueand typically happens to patients who had a urinary catheter placed during surgery. This problem, called urinary retention, usually resolves in the days following surgery. For other patients, a catheter may be necessary until the bladder “wakes up” from anesthesia.

Urinary Tract Infection

Urinary tract infections, like urinary retention, is often a result of having a urinary catheter placed for surgery. Most urinary tract infections are easily treated with antibiotics and respond quickly to treatment. More serious urinary tract infections can lead to a condition called urosepsis, and for that reason, burning with urination and other urinary tract infection symptoms should not be ignored.

Wound Dehiscence

Wound dehiscence is the medical term for having an incision open back up during the healing process.In most cases, this is a minor issue, and the wound takes an extra week or two to heal. In serious cases, the wound opens enough to require surgical intervention to prevent evisceration.

Scarring From Surgery

Your ability to care for your wound in the weeks following surgery will have a huge impact on how your incision scars. Not smoking, keeping the wound clean, a healthy diet and appropriate use of medication will help determine how your body heals and how much scarring is present.

Fever After Surgery

A low-grade fever after surgery is common in the first week of recovery , it is your body’s way of fighting any potential infection that may be present. High fevers are not common or expected and should always be reported to the surgeon.

A Word From Verywell

Every surgery recovery is unique, and while some complications may be more common than others, they all seem important and potentially serious when they are happening to you or a loved one.

If you are experiencing a complication and you are concerned that it may be a serious issue, read through the discharge materials given to you by your surgeon or the hospital.If the issue is not addressed in your discharge papers, you can reach out to the surgeon (most have an answering service for after-hours calls).

If you are having a serious complication, you can always seek treatment in the emergency room.This is truly one of those situations where you are better off safe than sorry, and it is better to call the surgeon and find out that the issue is not concerning than to ignore it and wish you had gotten help.

12 Sources

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

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  3. Shaikh SI, Nagarekha D, Hegade G, Marutheesh M. Postoperative nausea and vomiting: A simple yet complex problem.Anesth Essays Res. 2016;10(3):388–396. doi:10.4103/0259-1162.179310

  4. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Preventing Blood Clots After Orthopaedic Surgery.

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  6. Yu J, Zhuang CL, Shao SJ, et al.Risk factors for postoperative fatigue after gastrointestinal surgery.J Surg Res.2015;194(1):114-9. doi:10.1016/j.jss.2014.09.041

  7. American Society of Anesthesiologists. Six Tips to Reduce Confusion in Older Patients After Surgery.

  8. Tartari E, Weterings V, Gastmeier P, et al. Patient engagement with surgical site infection prevention: an expert panel perspective.Antimicrob Resist Infect Control. 2017;6:45. doi:10.1186/s13756-017-0202-3

  9. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Urinary Retention.

  10. Nicolle LE. Catheter associated urinary tract infections.Antimicrob Resist Infect Control. 2014;3:23. doi:10.1186/2047-2994-3-23

  11. Nadir A, Kaptanoglu M, Sahin E, Sarzep H.Post-thoracotomy wound separation (DEHISCENCE): a disturbing complication.Clinics(Sao Paulo). 2013;68(1):1-4. doi:10.6061/clinics/2013(01)OA01

  12. Rao J, Singh A.Evaluation of postoperative pyrexia in general surgery patients in Medicity Institute of Medical Sciences, Ghanpur, Medchal, India.International Surgery Journal.2018;5(6). doi:10.18203/2349-2902.isj20182014

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.

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