After Abdominal Surgery, Recovery Takes One Step at a Time

December 6, 2022 Swedish Surgical Services


In this article:

  • New multi-modal pain treatments are minimizing the need for opiates after abdominal surgery, helping patients avoid side effects like drowsiness, confusion and the risk of addiction, so they can focus on healing.

  • The most important thing you can do in the days after abdominal surgery is get moving bit by bit, increasing your activity in small increments every day.

  • Always make sure your surgeon clearly explains what you can expect during your recovery and when you can expect to return to work — if you aren’t getting answers you understand, ask for a better explanation.

If you’ve ever had surgery of any kind, you know that recovery can be challenging. Most surgical procedures treat a specific illness or injury, so many of us go into surgery focused on recovering from the health condition we are experiencing. But the surgery almost always requires time to heal, and that time can be different for every patient.

Because abdominal procedures like hernia repairs, gallbladder removals, colon surgeries and weight loss surgeries are common—many of us and people we know have had them — we hope that our recoveries from these procedures will be routine and uneventful. However, your recovery from abdominal surgery will differ depending on whether your procedure is categorized as open surgery (meaning a large incision was made through the abdominal wall) or laparoscopic (a surgery performed through multiple small incisions).

To understand what to expect when recovering from abdominal surgery, we spoke with Javier Herrera, M.D., a general surgeon with Swedish Surgical Associates in Edmonds.

Minimize your use of opioid pain meds

The less pain you experience after abdominal surgery, the more mobile you will be. You’ll also be at lower risk of complications. 

“In the not-so-distant past, surgeons prescribed too many opioid medications after surgery,” says Dr. Herrera. “Now we have proven that a combination of medications are much more effective if taken before, during and after surgery.” 

“Different medications work in different ways in the body. To reduce a patient’s perceived pain, we use multi-modal analgesic medications like acetaminophen, ibuprofen and nerve pain signal-blocking medications, gabapentinoids, around-the-clock before surgery and then several times a day for a week or so, after surgery.”

This multi-modal analgesic approach of combining different types of medications and treatments helps patients experience no more than minor discomfort while avoiding opioids and their side effects, like drowsiness, confusion and the risk of addiction, all of which can get in the way of healing. 

“Patients will still have abdominal soreness while using multi-modal medication, but they should not be in pain, and any soreness they feel while moving will keep them from overdoing exercise and certain activities that would increase their pain and prolong their recovery times,” says Dr. Herrera. “This will help the wound heal more quickly.”

“We will still give some narcotics for breakthrough pain only,” he adds. “And if you experience pain that is limiting the activity you need to heal, this should prompt a call to your doctor.”

Start moving — gradually — as soon as you can

Dr. Herrera says that for the first week or two, it is essential that patients stay mobile but avoid heavy lifting. At first, this might just be walking around the house. A day or two later, you might be ready to walk up and down the street.

“The tension created from moving and breathing stimulates the cells containing collagen within your developing scar, which are needed to form healthy scar tissue and increase the strength of the wound.”

How do you know if you’ve pushed yourself too far during your first few days of recovery? If you have increasing soreness the next day, back off. If you feel good the next day, continue and keep increasing your activity bit by bit every day. 

If you have laparoscopic surgery, you’ll likely return to your normal daily activity level in a week or two. For open abdominal surgeries, you should give yourself two to six weeks to get back to a normal activity level, depending on how severe your pain or discomfort is as well as the extent of your surgery.

Set realistic expectations for returning to work

There are a few things you’ll need to consider when setting a date to return to work after abdominal surgery:

  • Whether you had open or laparoscopic surgery; if you are having open surgery, you should prepare to be off work for several weeks.
  • The nature of your role at work. Do you spend your day at a desk or doing something active?
  • Will you be having general anesthesia? General anesthesia will make you very tired, and you will need to take naps throughout the day for several days after surgery.

“If you work in construction or another industry that requires physical labor, talk to your employer and explain that you will need at least a month to return to your regular job duties,” says Dr. Herrera. “And if you must return to work in less than a month, ask if there are other tasks you can take on until you are fully recovered.”

Go slow and steady to regain your strength

Even if your recovery is going well and you are back to normal day-to-day activity levels, you won’t be able to do core muscle exercises right away. 

Dr. Herrera says to give yourself a few months and then try repetitive exercises that do not require big movements. Gently activating your core muscles is key to regaining strength — avoid heavy crunches and try low-impact exercises such as yoga and Pilates, which challenge the core more gently by focusing on maintaining positions and repeating small, targeted movements.

You can also support your healing and strength by:

  • Eating a diet rich in whole foods, proteins, fruits and vegetables
  • Limiting sugar and processed high-calorie foods 
  • Not smoking 

When in doubt, ask your surgeon

“The most important thing a patient can do before and after abdominal surgery is to ask questions and then ask some more,” says Dr. Herrera. “As surgeons, we focus on the procedure’s specifics and your condition. If you aren’t getting adequate information about what your recovery will be like, make sure you ask and get an answer you understand.”

“Every surgeon will have a different opinion based on their surgical experience and your condition,” he adds. “The answers will be unique to you.”


Learn more and find a provider

If you have questions about abdominal surgeries, contact Swedish Surgical Services. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.

With Swedish Virtual Care, you can connect face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your family and health history. To find a provider, try searching our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Hernias: Know the signs and treatments for abdominal pain

Why you should have your hernia repaired

Gallstone disease and gallbladder removal

Overcoming the Discomfort of Pediatric Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)


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

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