Activity after open or laparoscopic abdominal surgery

February 6, 2013 Matthew A. Johnston, M.D., FACS


Young woman's belly after operation by laparoscopy in the hospital


In this article:

  • Recovery times differ based on surgery type.

  • Limiting activity after surgery limits pain and allows healing.

  • Contact your Swedish physician for postsurgical recommendations.

Every patient who visits my office with a surgical condition has several decisions to make and has a lot of information to absorb and understand.

I typically spend much of our time together describing the condition itself, why I recommend surgery, how I will perform the surgery and any risks involved in the procedure. While this is all critical to anyone’s understanding of their treatment plan, once the decision has been made to proceed with surgery, many patients’ concerns quickly turn to their recovery and what to expect after surgery. Most patients want to know when they can get back to walking, lifting, exercising and their normal daily routine. While every patient and procedure is different, some generalizations can be made to help you know what to expect.

General abdominal surgery can broadly be separated into two categories: open surgery (where a large incision is made through the abdominal wall) and laparoscopic surgery (robotic surgery performed through multiple small incisions). Both types of surgery are used for a wide array of surgical problems.

The recovery from these two types of surgery can be different. Every patient should ask their surgeon questions about wound care, dietary restrictions or signs of possible complications specifically related to their recommended procedure. There will be activity restrictions in the early postoperative period for all surgical procedures.

Many people wonder why we limit activity after abdominal surgery. One simple answer is that significant exertion of the core muscles of the abdomen will cause pain early after surgery. Secondly, whether open surgery or laparoscopic surgery, every surgeon needs to close the innermost musculofascial layer of the abdominal wall with sutures at the end of the operation. We limit everyone’s activity after surgery so that this closure can heal. If the area is not allowed to heal, then an abdominal hernia can develop, which may require more surgery to repair.

If you are having laparoscopic surgery, the size of the incision is small and will heal quickly. I usually restrict my patients to no lifting over 20 pounds for two to three weeks, depending on the surgery. I recommend avoiding any activity that causes straining, such as pushing, pulling and jumping. Avoid straining with bowel movements by eating a high-fiber diet or taking stool softeners to avoid constipation. There are usually no further restrictions.

With open surgery, the incision that needs to heal is much larger, and similar lifting restrictions are given for at least a month or longer, depending on the surgery. Patients should also realize that they may feel quite run down after surgery as much of their usual excess energy used for activities is diverted to the healing process. This can last for one or two weeks.

I always remind everyone that a little caution and restraint in the first weeks after surgery can prevent significant problems down the road.

Find a doctor

If you have questions about abdominal surgery, contact the surgical services department at Swedish. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual visits.

Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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