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Exercise before surgery speeds recovery

If you’ve ever had surgery, you know that recovery can be a long process. It likely involves plenty of rest and, depending on the type of procedure, it might include physical rehabilitation to help you regain strength and function again.

But doctors are increasingly asking patients to take part in exercises before surgery to make that road to recovery a little easier to travel. It’s called "prehabbing."

"Physical therapy following surgery helps patients regain function, but we’re finding that preparing your body for the stress of surgery beforehand by exercising and changing your diet can also help you recover faster," said Brandon Tunis, PT, DPT, a physical therapist in Geisinger’s sports medicine program.

Exercise, diet and whether someone smokes before surgery can contribute to increased recovery times after surgery. Being overweight and not getting enough nutrition increases the risk of complications associated with surgery. It can also increase blood loss during surgery.

And in a 2010 study, researchers found that regular smokers were at increased risk for cardiac arrest, heart attack and stroke while on the operating table. They were also more likely to get pneumonia during recovery following a wide range of surgeries.

To lower the risk of complications during and after surgery, and to decrease recovery time, your doctor may recommend a program that addresses your nutrition, exercise and mental health for a number of weeks before surgery.

"A prehab program might include making small changes to your diet to ensure you’re getting enough nutrients," said Tunis. "Your doctor might also refer you to a physical therapist who will assess your physical function and instruct you how to do some light resistance training to build strength and aerobic exercise to enhance your endurance before surgery."

For example, a patient undergoing surgery to repair a torn or injured anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee may be instructed to strengthen thigh muscles so they are prepared to compensate for a weakened knee after surgery.

While prehabbing may sound like it’s best for those undergoing procedures like a knee or hip replacement, it can also help patients undergoing other surgeries.

"Patients with cancer or a specific organ diseases may be malnourished because of their condition. Getting enough nutrients before surgery with the addition of a prehab plan can help the body heal more efficiently," said Tunis.

Depending on the type of surgery a patient is scheduled to have and the condition they are dealing with, they may also meet with a psychologist to discuss the procedure and associated anxiety. The prehab plan may include breathing exercises and relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety and stress.

Many patients, especially those about to undergo major surgery, may feel anxious, which can also impact recovery time.

Importantly, a prehab program is designed specifically for patients based on their physical, nutritional and emotional needs. It may not be appropriate for everyone.

"Prehabbing is unique to each person. If you find out you need surgery, you should ask about a program that could help you heal faster," said Tunis.

Talk to your doctor if you think you might be a good candidate for a prehab program. For more information about Geisinger orthopaedic and sports medicine care, please visit Geisinger.org.

Wellness woman stretching prehab