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A year ago, I struggled with depression after a foot surgery. I experienced feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, fatigue and overwhelm. I thought this had something to do with my reaction to my limitations after surgery: restricted mobility and not being able to work, etc. while I was healing. But when these same symptoms repeated a year later after a similar surgery (even with much quicker healing and return to work) I began to realize that depression may be related to the surgery itself. I investigated this phenomenon and found that postoperative depression is a very common occurrence. If this is so common, why didn’t anyone prepare me? In hopes that my experience might help someone else as they face or recover from a surgery… I’d like to share what I’ve learned…

Depression is a well-documented adverse effect of many surgical procedures. According to the American Heart Association, 25% of patients experience depression after cardiac surgery. Depression can result from a number a reasons, including pain and discomfort, decreased mobility, and increased dependency on others. For patients who have had a surgery to remove an organ or body part, a feeling of loss can also contribute to depression. In addition, the brain’s immune response to anesthesia and surgery can cause cognitive dysfunction.

Symptoms of postoperative depression may include:

  • fatigue
  • difficulty making decisions
  • memory problems
  • eating more or less than usual
  • sleeping more or less than usual
  • loss of interest in activities
  • irritability and restlessness
  • slower movement
  • slower speech
  • anxiety and stress
  • feelings of despair or hopelessness
  • suicidal or self-harming thoughts

Depression can also increase the risk of physical illness and slow the recovery from an injury or operation. Furthermore, depression after surgery can increase a patient’s perception of pain.

While it is normal to experience many of these symptoms after surgery, if they persist longer than two weeks, talk with your doctor. He or she may be able to prescribe a medication temporarily to help you feel more like yourself.

picture of teddy bear in hospital bed

There are several things you can do to beat the post-surgery blues…

  • Take care of yourself
  • Ask for help
  • Spend time outdoors
  • Get enough sleep
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Surround yourself with loved ones
  • Do something you enjoy
  • Ease SLOWLY back into routine

The American Heart Association (AHA) has resources including this pre-surgery checklist and postoperative recovery milestones. AHA offers these tips for recovering from surgery:

  • Manage Expectations – ask questions ahead of time to know what to expect for your recovery
  • Take it slow – if you push it too fast, you can slow your healing. Give your body and mind the time they need to heal
  • Move, but at your own pace – exercise can aid in healing, but only what your doctor has approved
  • Celebrate progress – while recovery can seem to take forever, a look back to see how far you have come can be encouraging.

If you or a loved one is facing surgery, learn as much as you can about the physical, and emotional effects of surgery in order to improve chances of feeling better while recovering.

Sources:

American Heart Association. (2019). Post Surgery Milestones: Managing Your Mood, Expectations and Goals The Emotions of Surgery Recovery. Retrieved from: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-valve-problems-and-disease/recovery-and-healthy-living-goals-for-heart-valve-patients/post-surgery-milestones-managing-your-mood-expectations-and-goals#.WSVLfBPyuu4

Chowdhurry, S., (2019, Feb 6). “Why Some People Get Depressed After Surgery—Even if They’ve Recovered Just Fine.” Retrieved from https://www.health.com/condition/depression/depression-after-surgery

Depression and postoperative complications: an overview. Ghoneim MM, O’Hara MW. BMC Surg. 2016;16:5. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4736276/

Johnson, J. (2017, May 25). “Depression after surgery: What you need to know.” Medical News Today. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/317616.php.

Mirani, S. H., Areja, D., Gilani, S. S., Tahir, A., Pathan, M., & Bhatti, S. (2019). Frequency of Depression and Anxiety Symptoms in Surgical Hospitalized Patients. Cureus11(2), e4141. doi:10.7759/cureus.4141 Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6485537/

Writer: Shannon Carter, Ohio State University Extension, Fairfield County, carter.413@osu.edu

Reviewer: Misty Harmon, Ohio State University Extension, Perry County, harmon.416@osu.edu

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