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Forewarning: there are semi graphic pictures in this post of my umbilical hernia surgery incision.
Disclaimer: the following are suggestions based on my experience with umbilical hernia surgery. Always follow the advice of your doctor, and consult with your doctor if you have any questions or concerns.
I toyed with writing this piece like a race recap, because in all honesty, this experience has felt like a really long race. There were highs (some natural, some drug induced), there were lows, and there were points where my nutrition totally affected my performance, if you will. I bonked, I came back around, and now I think I can see the finish line. Alas, due to the wonderful power of search engines, I realize many non runners will show up to this very post looking for a little umbilical hernia surgery reassurance before their own procedure, so I’ll keep it simple, and leave out technical terms like “FOMO” and the aforementioned “bonk“. At least for now.
Instead I thought it would be helpful to write a list of tips learned through trial and error over the course of 11 days (and counting) of my umbilical hernia surgery recovery. Prior to surgery I reached out to the wonderful world wide web looking for first hand experiences and suggestions, and came up with a lot of generic medical posts instead. While semi helpful, they didn’t give me as much insight as I would have hoped. Over 500,000 hernia repairs occur per year in our country (source); with such a high occurrence rate, I was surprised to not find more personal experiences. Finding a firsthand experience from a fellow runner/athlete was near impossible. So here I am, oversharing with the world once again, in hopes that it might help someone.
Real talk: this surgery knocked me off my feet for a lot longer than I anticipated, a lot longer than my surgeon initially led me to believe. Yet, it didn’t leave me out of commission nearly as long as many friends and online acquaintances experienced. Thus, what I’m about to share was simply MY experience, and will obviously differ based on numerous factors surrounding your own procedure, body, prior training and racing experience…oh wait, scratch that last one.
Parameters surrounding my surgery:
What: An umbilical hernia that made it’s way through a small diastasis (about two fingers, moms reading this know that this is how diastasis recti is typically measured.)
Who: Me (obviously). 32 years old. For the moms checking in, 6 years post partum with two children. For what it’s worth (because I believe it has had a huge impact on my recovery), I am highy active: strength training 5 days per week and running approximately 25 +/- miles per week prior to surgery. I work as a personal trainer, so having the hernia fixed was essential.
Procedure: Umbilical herniorrhaphy with mesh. Non laparoscopic (traditional incision). Diastasis was left untouched.
(To catch you up on the pre-op and first 72 hours post surgery, much of which was rambling and written under the influence of the prescribed pain killers, read this post.)
1) This was a bigger deal than expected.
Other than a wisdom teeth extraction, I’ve never had surgery. Thus I’ll admit I went into this procedure pretty oblivious to what to expect post surgery. Initially, my surgeon told me “48 hours of pain, then you’ll be up and about. 2 weeks until you return to normal activity.” I took his word for it. In actuality, the pain lasted for about 5-6 days, discomfort for the next few days. I’m now 11 days post op and feeling 90% back to normal, though I have not yet resumed normal activity (i.e., working out). But during that first week, I was surprised at how incapacitated I was (more on this later). At my post op checkup (day #8), my surgeon explained to me that in the past, they would typically keep hernia surgery patients in the hospital for a day or two, then restrict them from normal activity for 6 weeks. He reminded me that while they’ve come a long way with this particular procedure, it is indeed still surgery, and nothing to be taken lightly.
2) You’re likely going to swell.
I felt, and looked, about 4 months pregnant for nearly the first week after surgery. This is natural, as with anything “traumatic” that occurs to your body; swelling is your body’s natural inflammatory response to any injury. Cells are dying, fluids are rushing to the area to aid in healing, but the fluid isn’t being removed as quickly as normal. So:
- Break out your most comfortable, loose fitting clothing. Sweatpants, yoga pants, you get the idea.
- ICE. Ice helps reduce swelling, and also helps ease some of the pain. I found a cold gel pack to be the best option, because it not only conformed to the shape of my stomach, but it wasn’t quite as painfully cold as straight ice. Therefore the few times I fell asleep with it on (not recommended!) didn’t result in frostbite.
- Eat small meals or snacks. Maybe it’s the ever ravenous athlete in me, but I did NOT lose my appetite post surgery, as I expected to. But despite being hungry, I was hesitant to eat too much for fear of adding bloating to the already painful swelling.
3) Bet you didn’t realize how much you use your core!
I sure didn’t, and as a personal trainer, I’m overly aware of how we use our body on a day to day basis. The tiniest thing, like turning my torso ever so slightly to the right to see what was going on beside me hurt. 11 days later and I still can’t use a vacuum to clean the floor at work. The nurse that took care of me in the hospital told me that I would become really proficient in finding ways to move about without contracting my core. She was right. So:
- Ask for help. All of the time. I constantly had Geoff help pull me into a seated position from lying down, or a standing position from seated.
- Sleep on the couch. You want to sleep on a surface that is relatively high off the ground, making it easier to get into a standing position. But the couch has the added benefit of the back, which acts as an awesome brace to pull yourself up on without overly engaging your core. I became a pro at it. Lastly, for the first two nights I didn’t even want to lay flat, so the couch arm aided as platform to layer a ton of pillows, making myself a very comfortable, nearly upright bed.
4) A pillow can be your best friend.
I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but as soon as I got home and laid down on the couch, I put a pillow on my abdomen. It not only felt soothing, but acted as a layer of protection between life in general (running cats, well meaning loved ones that “forget”, random flying objects) and my incredibly sensitive incision. Further, I would brace my core against the pillow when I tried to stand up and walk around for the first 48 hours. It felt really good to have that support against my sore abdomen.
5) Don’t be a hero: take your pain meds*.
I was prescribed a rotation of over the counter ibuprofen and prescription oxycodone. For numerous reasons, I don’t like taking pain pills. I don’t like the haze they put me into, nor the side affects they come with. And so, less than 24 hours post surgery, I stopped taking them. I almost immediately regretted it, and found myself in a lot of pain. My mother in law had to remind me that I JUST HAD SURGERY, and that this was what the pills were designed for. I reluctantly took the medication and slipped back into the oxycodone stupor. Though I didn’t like taking the pills, I found staying on top of the schedule for the first 72 hours made the pain far more tolerable. Further, they literally forced me to rest and relax, which is absolutely essential when recovering. Therefore, after the third day, I was able to cut back to only ibuprofen.
*as prescribed by YOUR doctor.
5) Pooping sucks.
I didn’t want to beat around the bush, so forgive the forwardness of this bullet point. But, anesthesia combined with prescribed narcotics will bind you up really fast. Add to this the that the fact that abdominal surgery makes it really hard and painful to contract your core (and thus, bear down while on the toilet). You are likely going to be come constipated, and while that is never fun, it is even more miserable post-op. Here’s what helped me:
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Drink plenty of water and other fluids. Not only does this help “get things moving”, being properly hydrated is essential in helping your body recover.
- Eat small meals, but make sure they are high in fiber.
- Ask your doctor about a stool softener. Mine recommended over the counter MiraLAX .
- Carry a small pillow into the bathroom to brace against your core (see #4). It sounds silly, but it really helped me.
6) REST, RELAX, RECOVER.
I don’t have a sit still personality. I’m not sure if this is a blessing or a curse, but “not doing anything” is NOT in my nature. Physically forcing myself to stay put, while mentally ALLOWING myself to stay put was a challenge for me. And still is, if I’m being honest. My activity limitations included, and I quote “non heavy lifting or straining until pain free”. On day #5, I felt pain free, and lifted a box that I would NEVER consider heavy (maybe 15 lbs). I wound up back on the couch that night in a lot of pain. It was too much, too soon. In hoping to be able to compete in a race I have this upcoming weekend (doctor approved) I’m continuing to take time off from exercise despite the fact that I feel great. And it has been a really hard.
It is important to think of the big picture: healing and recovering now means you’ll be back to normal activity (whatever that may be for you) sooner than if you try to push too hard, too fast. Do not be afraid to ask for help from your family or friends. Let someone else deal with the house, the kids, the dogs, etc, as much as possible during the first week. As mentioned in bullet point #1, despite numerous surgical advances making this an outpatient procedure, it IS still a big deal, and your body needs time to properly recover.
So there you have it, my first hand experience with umbilical hernia surgery, and a few things I wish I had known ahead of time. As always, all concerns should be brought up with your physician. But if you have any general questions about my experience, please feel free to comment below!
** 6/8/17 Click here to read the 1.5 year recovery update***
(Spoiler alert…it came back.)
*7/2/17 Click here to read “Adventures with Ventral Hernia Surgery – Take Two” – the story of my SECOND hernia surgery.