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Prevent swelling after surgery

Updated: May 3, 2023

Swelling is a natural phenomenon after a procedure. It's a traumatic event and part of the body finding homeostasis again is to attempt to flush out toxins by shunting blood and lymph fluid directed to the wounded area. If during part of your surgery included "washing out" a wound or using tumescent fluid to make the process easier; then you can expect there to be a bit more fluid than normal.

There are many things you can do to improve post-surgical swelling after any procedure. Some will be directly recommended by your surgeon and some are implied or often forgotten.

1. Deep breathing. The diaphragm is a large dome-like muscle that separates the lungs from the abdominal organs. It is the main muscle of respiration and is connected from the bottom of the chest plate, bottom ribs all the way in the back to the lumbar vertebrae. As you take a deep breath in the dome flattens to pull air into the lungs. When you exhale the dome tents up to help to expel the air. That motion of the diaphragm helps to stimulate the lymphatic system and the main thoracic duct the cisterna chyli.

Stimulating the lymphatic system to flow helps to prevent fluid from becoming stagnant in the body, which can cause acute swelling or long-term more chronic edema. Diaphragmatic breathing is an early easy exercise that anyone can do early in their recovery.

2. Mobility. Moving your body is another way to prevent swelling. We've all heard the saying "Water flows downhill" in the same way that fluid will collect to a more dependent extremity. If you are laying in bed or sitting in a chair for most of the day it will not be uncommon to have swelling in the legs or feet. By moving around you are activating the muscle pumping activity that also stimulates movement of fluid in the lymphatic system. We encourage you to walk to tolerance with assistance as needed after a procedure as much as every hour which could be a trip to the bathroom or around the halls. If walking is not an option for you, focus on wiggling toes, pumping the ankles, tensing the thigh, buttock and stomach muscles. A gentle wriggling, rocking or weight shifting if that's all you can manage.

If the swelling is focused more in your upper extremities than lower body, then take the same idea upwards. Open and close fingers, hands, bend and straighten elbows, arms up overhead and down and move that head from side to side. Often this gentle early mobility can help to ease pain as well as the swelling and it's important to maintain muscle use because the other old saying, "Use it or lose it" is in fact quite true and muscle wasting happens much faster than you think.

Here's an example of exercises you could try at home Skip Ahead to minute 3

3. Foods like alcohol, high sodium prepackaged foods with high carbohydrates and fried foods should be avoided. Foods can also be power tools against swelling. Stock up on

Dandelion tees/supplements

Fruits like berries, lemon, watermelon, pineapple

Veggies like broccoli, spinach and leafy greens

Omega-3 acids include halibut, salmon, fish oil, mackerel, flax, flaxseed, as well as walnuts and walnut oil, and hempseed and hempseed oil

and the very important Water, Water, Water

Check out my post-op nutrition guide Includes Calculations, Recipe and Tracker!

4. Compression can be an option with chronic swelling, known/suspected lymphedema or venous insufficiency issues. The white TED hose you get at the hospital help prevent DVT or blood clots from lack of mobility. TEDs do little for swelling and you can leave the white hose off when you are walking around. If swelling persists or lasts longer than 30 days after your procedure you may benefit from seeing a Certified Lymphedema Therapist which your primary should be able to refer you to one. Medical compression garments may be required to prevent further issues however you could get started with a lower pressure garment between 15-20mgHG. Check out this resource for more info.


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