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Know When Your Symptoms After Surgery Are an Emergency

What is Not Normal During Your Recovery From Surgery


Updated June 09, 2014

Woman holding her stomach in pain
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Warning Signs After Surgery

Once you have been discharged from the hospital after surgery, you need to know when your recovery has changed from a normal recovery to one that may need medical intervention.

If you have any of the following symptoms in the weeks following surgery, be sure to call your surgeon or family physician for further instruction. You may be asked to report to the emergency room, or your physician may feel that your symptoms can be managed at home.

Fever Over 101 Degrees
A slight fever is not uncommon after having surgery, but a fever over 101 degrees may indicate that you have an infection.

Unexplained Leg Pain
One of the major risks of surgery is the development of blood clots in the legs, a condition known as deep vein thrombosis (DVT). These clots can be very dangerous as they can travel through the bloodstream to the lungs or brain, causing difficulty breathing, a stroke or other problems.

Pus, Drainage or Streaks From Your Incision
Small amounts of clear drainage may come out of your incision in the days after surgery, but fluid coming from the incision that looks like pus or smells foul is a sign of infection. Red streaks on your skin that move away from the incision can also be a warning sign of infection.

Your Incision Begins to Pull Apart
If your incision begins to separate, your surgeon should be contacted immediately. Cover the wound with a moist bandage or clean piece of cloth, then seek medical attention. This complication may be prevented by holding pressure on the incision when coughing, rising from a chair or sneezing.

Inability to Urinate or Have a Bowel Movement
Contact your surgeon’s office if you are constipated or having difficulty urinating. Straining to have a bowel movement or urinate can increase the pressure in your abdomen and put stress on your incisions, and these symptoms can be signs of more severe complications. Do not use over-the-counter remedies without your surgeon’s approval.

Bloody, Very Dark or “Tarry” Bowel Movements
These are signs of blood in your stool and should be reported immediately, unless your physician specifically explained that you may experience some bleeding in the stool in the days immediately after surgery.

Coughing Up or Vomiting Blood
These are signs of a potential medical emergency, where blood is in the stomach or lungs. Contact your surgeon or seek medical attention immediately.

Severe, Unexplained or Uncontrollable Pain
If your pain was manageable after surgery but then becomes significantly worse or uncontrollable with no clear explanation, there may be a surgical complication.

Difficulty Breathing
A change in your ability to breathe is a significant problem after surgery and may indicate a serious problem, such as a blood clot in the lung. Do not ignore any problems with your breathing that begin after surgery. Seek medical attention.

Inability to Eat
If you have been discharged home to recover, your surgeon believes that you are able to obtain adequate nutrition from your diet. If that is not the case, your ability to eat changes or you cannot keep food and fluids down, your surgeon should be notified.

Increasing Weakness, Inability to Care For Yourself
If you seem to be getting weaker instead of stronger after your discharge from the hospital, or you are not able to care for yourself, your recovery may be in jeopardy. Be aware that you should slowly be getting stronger after your procedure, not having increasing difficulty with normal activities.

The Worst Headache You’ve Ever Had
If your doctor hasn’t told you to expect a severe headache after your procedure, and you do not normally suffer from severe headaches, you should seek medical attention. A severe headache can be caused by a blood clot traveling to the brain after surgery.


What Happens After Heart Surgery. The American Heart Association. 2007. http://www.heart.org/idc/groups/heart-public/@wcm/@hcm/documents/downloadable/ucm_300447.pdf

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