After surgery, your body needs rest — but physical activity, the best exercise for heart health, can also help speed your recovery.
Increased movement limits the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), when blood clots form in deep veins following surgery or long periods of immobility. Left untreated, DVT can lead to serious complications — such as a pulmonary embolism, when a blood clot travels to and damages your lungs — and could be fatal.
Luckily, you can help prevent DVT with good ole fashioned physical activity, the best exercise for heart health.
More About Deep Vein Thrombosis
There are many types of thrombosis. Some, such as coronary thrombosis, happen when clots form in the heart. These aren't usually caused by surgery.
During surgery — for a broken leg or a torn ACL, for example — the procedure can affect both blood flow and arterial vessel walls. This can lead to DVT.
Symptoms of DVT often happen in the lower body. Johns Hopkins Medicine says to watch out for these symptoms following surgery:
- Pain or swelling in the limbs.
- Numbness or weakness on one side of the body.
- Rapid change in your thinking or behavior.
If you've recently had major surgery and are showing symptoms of thrombosis, your doctor might want to do some other types of treatments — such as blood thinners or possibly surgery — to help keep blood flowing normally and prevent existing clots from getting bigger.
You may even be prescribed a medical device that stimulates the circulation in the lower extremities.
However, not everyone has the same symptoms. Some don't have any at all. If you're about to have major surgery, ask your doctor how you can help proactively prevent the risk of thrombosis.
There might be other postoperative effects you're worried about, such as weight gain or muscle atrophy, but when it comes to your long-term health, thrombosis also deserves your attention. So, after discussing and developing a thrombosis prevention plan with your doctor, try to get moving after surgery. Even if your body doesn't like it, your heart and lungs will thank you.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), people face the risk of deep vein thrombosis for up to three months after surgery. To prevent it, the Academy recommends a healthy amount of postoperative movement to keep blood flowing throughout your limbs.
Getting Going After Surgery
It might hurt just thinking about moving after a major procedure, but that movement can go a long way toward curbing your thrombosis risk. Ask your doctor for guidance on when, how much, and which exercises may be right for you. If they give you the green light, you can consider starting with some of these light exercises.
1. Floor and standing exercises. Depending on your surgery, special exercises such as leg raises or knee bends while lying down or standing up can help restore mobility throughout your body. AAOS offers step-by-step exercise guides for patients recovering from hip or knee surgery, but these can be adapted for other recovery programs as well. Feeling more mobile? Try walking a little at a time. Many say it's the best exercise for heart health.
2. Can't stand up? Do what you can in bed. Even if you're bed-bound, you can make the most of your movements while lying or sitting down. Try an ankle pump, where you lower and raise your ankles for a few minutes every few hours. If that's still too much, try simply moving around in bed — like from your side to your back — every few hours. Compression socks, which support circulation, can help, too.
3. Ask your physical therapist for some homework. If you're seeing a physical therapist to help with postoperative mobility, ask them for exercises you can do at home or work with a recommended number of reps to continue therapy between visits. Not seeing a physical therapist? Consult with your doctor.