Although, uncommon, bleeding after surgery is the most common potential post-operative complication. To minimize the chances of this occurring, patients are advised to be as minimally active after surgery as possible. This includes activity restrictions such as:
No bending or heavy lifting
No rigorous exercise or exertion
Do not make important plans in the days immediately following your surgery
The above instructions appear on the website of a medical school department. The operation in question is
B. Partial mastectomy
C. Inguinal hernia repair
D. All of the above
E. None of the above
Answer: E. None of the above. While all three of the operations mentioned could have been the subject of these activity restrictions, they were taken from a dermatology service's description of the aftercare of Mohs surgery, which is a way of exercising skin cancers—not exactly major surgery.
This topic was suggested to me by a Twitter follower.
I told him that as far as I knew, there is no evidence basis for any of the activity restrictions we tell patients.
When I was a resident in the early 1970s, we kept patients who underwent inguinal herniorrhaphy in bed for no fewer than five days, and nephrectomy patients were bedbound for a week.
For the former, the theory was that early activity might disrupt the repair—implying that many repairs were tenuous in those days. Regarding nephrectomy, the prevailing wisdom was that the tie or ties on the renal vein could be dislodged by increased pressure in the inferior vena cava from something as trivial as a Valsalva maneuver. Following this logic, we should have prevented nephrectomy patients from coughing or having bowel movements too.
Since then, progress has been made. Hernia patients are discharged on the day of surgery, and nephrectomies are not kept in bed.
What is the definition of "heavy lifting"? It is usually described as lifting more than 10 lbs. Where did that come from? Other than 10 being a nice round number, I can't think of another reason.
A far-from-exhaustive literature search revealed no evidence-based studies and nothing at all pertaining to general surgery.
A 2008 opinion paper suggested that cardiac surgery patients who have excessive limitations on their activities might suffer excessive anxiety and depression leading to poor outcomes. They recommended that patients be given "personalized activity guidelines developed by an exercise specialist to help them resume their presurgical lives."
Activity restrictions after gynecologic surgery are also not evidence-based. A review from the University of Utah found no studies relating postoperative activity and surgical success. A previous survey had found "Depending on the surgery, 88-99% of surgeons restricted lifting for mean of 5–7 weeks (range 1–26 weeks and up to 'forever' [?] after vaginal hysterectomy with vaginal repairs)."
In 2011, an expert panel said patients undergoing laparoscopic supracervical hysterectomy should avoid lifting more than 10 kg, bicycle riding, and vacuum cleaning [?] for two weeks.
At the other extreme is the story of Ryan Callahan, a forward for the Tampa Bay Lightning of the National Hockey League. Last May, he began practicing three days after a laparoscopic appendectomy and played in a playoff game two days later.
To put it mildly, the topic of postoperative activity restrictions is long overdue for prospective study.