Caring for Yourself After Your Orthopedic Surgery

This information will help you care for yourself after your orthopedic surgery.

How to Care for Your Incision

Follow these guidelines to care for your incision (surgical cut), unless your doctor gives you other instructions.

Changing your dressing (bandage)

  • Don’t remove or change your dressing for 2 days after your surgery.
  • After 2 days, you may remove the dressing. Replace it with clean, dry gauze.
  • Change the gauze every day and whenever it becomes wet or dirty.

Caring for your incision

  • Look at your incision each time you change your gauze.
    • It may be covered with Steri-Strips TM (thin pieces of paper tape). Leave the Steri-Strips in place until they fall off or until your doctor removes them.
    • Your incision may look slightly red, swollen, or bruised. This is normal.
  • Don’t get your incision wet until you see your doctor at your follow-up appointment. Your doctor will tell you when you can start washing your incision. In the meantime, you may sponge bathe, but make sure to keep your incision dry.
  • If you had sutures (stitches) or staples, they may be removed during your follow-up appointment.
  • Don’t put lotions or creams on your incision unless your doctor tells you to.
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Caring for Yourself

  • Don’t take these medications for a week after your procedure because they can cause bleeding:
    • Aspirin
    • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen (Advil® or Motrin®)
    • Vitamin E

Talk to your doctor if you have any questions. For more information, ask your nurse for the resource Common Medications Containing Aspirin and Other Nonsteroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs), or search for it on

  • Don’t exercise, such as lift weights or jog, until your doctor tells you it’s safe. If you have any questions about playing any sports or other activities, ask your doctor.
  • Don’t drive until your doctor tells you it’s safe.
  • Keep the arm or leg you had surgery on above the level of your heart when you’re sitting or lying down. This will decrease or prevent swelling.
    • If you had surgery on your leg, don’t sit with your legs lower than the level of your heart for more than 2 hours at a time. Lie in bed, on a couch, or in a recliner with your leg resting on a pillow so it’s higher than your heart. Change your position every 2 hours, whether you’re sitting or lying down.
    • If your surgery was on your arm, rest it on pillows so it’s above the level of your heart.
    • If you notice swelling in your arm or leg, raise it more often. If the swelling doesn’t get better, call your doctor or nurse.
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Medical Equipment

After your surgery, you may need to use special medical equipment, such as a brace, splint, sling, cane, or crutches. Your doctor will give you information.

If you had surgery on your arm, you may need to wear a sling. Your doctor will show you how to wear it.

If you had surgery on your leg or foot, you may need to use crutches. Crutches reduce the amount of weight you place on your leg or foot. This helps speed the healing process by taking pressure off of your bone.

It’s important to use crutches correctly to prevent damage to the nerves in your armpits or palms of your hands. Your doctor, nurse, or physical therapist will show you how to use crutches before you leave the hospital.

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Taking Medication

  • You may go home with a prescription for pain medication. Take it as instructed by your doctor or nurse.
  • Pain medication can cause constipation. To help prevent constipation:
    • Drink at least 8 (8-ounce) glasses of liquids every day.
      • Drink water, juices, soups, and other drinks that don’t have caffeine. Drinks with caffeine, such as coffee and soda, and alcohol pull fluid out of your body.
    • Eat 5 to 9 servings of fresh fruits and vegetables per day.
    • Ask your nurse or doctor about using a stool softener or laxative, such as docusate sodium (Colace®) or senna (Senekot®). Make sure to take it as instructed.
  • Call your doctor or nurse if you haven’t had a bowel movement in 3 days.
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Follow-up Appointment

Call your doctor’s office on the next business day after your surgery to make a follow-up appointment.

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Call Your Doctor or Nurse if You Have:

  • A temperature higher than 100.4° F (38.0° C)
  • Numbness, tingling, or burning in your fingers or toes
  • Pain that doesn’t get better with pain medication
  • Drainage or a bad smell coming from your incision site
  • Trouble moving your fingers or toes
  • Increased swelling that doesn’t get better when you raise the arm or leg you had surgery on
  • Fingers or toes that are very cold and don’t get warm when you cover them
  • Increased redness around your incision
  • Any unexpected problems or concerns
  • Any questions
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