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Operation, going into hospital

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

If you're considering having an operation or your GP has suggested you may need surgery, this guide is for you.

It will take you through all the steps in the process, from referral to recovery, so you're fully prepared and know what questions to ask at each stage.

Before you start the treatment journey, you can discuss with your GP which hospital(s)you would prefer to be referred to.

Once you have agreed this, your GP will refer you to see a specialist at this hospital.

Find out more about each stage of the treatment journey by following the below steps:

  1. Seeing a specialist - an initial consultation to discuss your treatment options and agree what's right for you. 
  2. Preparing for surgery - what to do in the days leading up to surgery, and your pre-operative assessment.
  3. Day of the operation - arriving at hospital, information for visitors, and what happens before you go into theatre.
  4. After surgery - coming round from the operation and being discharged from hospital.
  5. Getting back to normal - general advice and typical recovery times.

Useful Links

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Your first appointment will be with the consultant in charge of your treatment at your chosen hospital. You can bring someone with you to this appointment.

At this stage, it is not guaranteed that surgery will be right for you. Only the consultant can make this decision, after doing some tests, making a careful assessment and weighing up all the treatment options that are available to you. 

You may want to ask your specialist the following questions:

  • What are the different types of treatment for my condition?
  • What are the benefits, side effects and risks of each of these treatments?
  • Why are you recommending that I have this operation?
  • Are other types of non-surgical treatment possible for my condition?

If an operation is necessary, this will be your chance to find out what the operation involves, why it's needed, and whether it's suitable for you. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • Who will perform the operation? What qualifications and experience do they have? 
  • What exactly does the operation involve, and how long will it take?
  • What type of anaesthetic will I need?
  • How long is the waiting list for this operation?
  • How will I know if the operation is a success?

Also, don't be afraid to ask practical questions, such as:

  • Will I need stitches and will there be scarring?
  • How long before the operation will I need to stop eating and drinking?
  • How long will I need to stay in hospital?
  • How long will it take me to recover and get back to normal?
  • Will I need time off work and, if so, for how long?

Make sure you discuss any concerns with the consultant.

At the end of the session, your consultant may book your operation or ask you to come back for a further appointment. They may take your informed consent at this stage, which indicates that you know what the surgery is for and understand the risks and benefits.

Once booked, you should receive a letter with details of your operation, asking you to confirm you are happy with the proposed date and time.

Important health advice in the weeks leading up to surgery

  • If you smoke, now is your opportunity to quit smoking.Smoking will increase your risk of complications after surgery and delay your recovery.
  • Try to lose any excess weight .
  • If you're a heavy drinker cut down on alcohol. 

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

In the days leading up to your surgery, you'll need to make travel arrangements for getting to and from the hospital and think about what to pack.

Make sure you give your family and friends plenty of notice about your operation, so they can take time off work to be with you if necessary.

Check your hospital's policy on visiting times and let your family and friends know. Read more about Visiting someone in hospital.

Pre-operative assessment

At some hospitals you'll be asked to attend a pre-operative assessment, which may be an appointment with a nurse or doctor or a telephone assessment. You'll be asked questions about your health, your medical history and your home circumstances. You'll also need to have blood tests. This assessment will usually happen one or more days before your operation.

Make sure you know the results of any previous tests, as well as all the medications, vitamins and herbal supplements you take. 

You'll be given clear information on:

  • whether you need to stop eating and drinking in the hours before your operation
  • whether you should stop taking your usual medications before going into hospital
  • what to bring with you into hospital (see box, left)
  • whether you'll need to stay in hospital overnight and, if so, for how long

Importance of fasting

If your doctor has instructed you to fast before the operation, it's really important that you don't eat or drink anything - this includes light snacks, sweets and water. You need an empty stomach during surgery so you don't vomit while you are under anaesthetic.


You'll need to remove all make-up and nail polish before your operation as the doctors will need to see your skin and nails to make sure your blood circulation is healthy.

Getting to and from hospital

Think about how you will get to the hospital and back again. You probably won't be well enough to drive, so you may want to arrange transport or ask a friend or relative to help. In some cases, the hospital may be able to arrange transport home for you.You may have to pay for parking.

Cancelling and rearranging

If you're unable to attend your hospital appointment or you don't feel well enough to have your operation, let the hospital know as soon as possible. Your admission will be rearranged for another day.

Let your surgeon know if you develop a cough, cold or fever a few days before surgery. They will advise whether your operation can go ahead.

What to pack for hospital

Bring your appointment card or admission letter with you. If you're staying in hospital, you may wish to pack:

  • a nightdress or pyjamas
  • day clothes
  • reading glasses
  • clean underwear
  • dressing gown and slippers
  • small hand towel
  • toiletries – soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant
  • sanitary towels or tampons
  • razor and shaving materials
  • comb or hairbrush
  • book or magazines
  • small amount of money
  • medication that you normally take
  • notebook and pen
  • healthy snacks
  • address book and important phone numbers, including your GP's contact details

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Your admission letter from the hospital will tell you the date and time of your operation and what time you need to turn up.

It should also tell you which ward or department you're going to be in, a contact number for your hospital or ward and the consultant who will be taking care of you.

When you arrive, you'll be welcomed by a member of staff, who will explain the processes to you and give you an identity bracelet to wear during your stay in hospital.

During your time in hospital, you may be asked the same questions by several people. This is routine, and it ensures that the correct information about you is checked and available at each stage of treatment.


Take any medicines that your doctor asked you to take before surgery. However, if you normally take tablets or insulin for diabetes, make sure that you discuss this with your specialist as soon as possible before your operation.

You'll be asked whether you're allergic to any medication or whether any relatives have ever had any problems with an anaesthetic, so that suitable precautions can be taken.

Company and visitors

Family or friends can usually stay with you until you leave for the operating theatre, at which point they can wait for you in the waiting room.

Check your hospital's policy on visiting times.

Just before the operation

You'll be asked to change into a hospital gown, and the details of the operation will be explained. You'll then be asked to sign a consent form giving your permission for surgery to go ahead. This form indicates that you know what the surgery is for, and that you understand the risks, benefits and alternative treatments.

For some operations, a needle connected to a drip will be injected into your hand, allowing fluids, nourishment and medicine to be given while you're under anaesthetic (powerful painkilling medication).


You will be given an anaesthetic so that you won't feel any pain during the operation.

A general anaesthetic will be needed for a major operation, which means you'll be asleep throughout the whole operation. It will be given to you via an injection or gas, which you breathe through a mask.

There's no need to be anxious about having a general anaesthetic: the anaesthetist will be by your side the whole time you are asleep, carefully monitoring you, and will be there when you wake up.

If you don't need to be put to sleep, you'll be given a regional anaesthetic. This means you'll be conscious throughout, but you won't feel any pain. It may be a local anaesthetic, where a small area is numbed, or an epidural, which reduces sensation in the lower areas of your body.


Questions you may want to ask

  • What happens before the operation?
  • Why do I have to wear the surgical stockings?
  • Can I still eat and drink before the operation?
  • What will I feel like after the operation?
  • How long will the effects of the anaesthetic last?
  • Will I feel any pain after the operation?
  • How will my pain be managed after the surgery?
  • What should I do and who should I tell if I'm in pain?
  • What are the visiting arrangements?
  • Will I return to the same ward after the surgery?
  • When will I see the consultant?
  • When can I expect to go home after the operation?
  • When will I be told of any results of samples taken?

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

After surgery you'll be moved to the recovery room where you'll be told how the operation went.

You may feel hazy or groggy as you come round from the anaesthetic. A nurse will give you oxygen (through tubes or a mask) to help you feel normal again.

It's common to feel sick or vomit after you've been given anaesthesia. Your nurse may offer you medicine to help relieve this discomfort. You may also have a sore throat and dry mouth.

Your blood pressure will be taken via an automatic cuff that squeezes tightly at regular times. Your temperature will also be taken.

The outcome of your operation

It's important to find out how well your operation went. Here are some questions you may want to ask:

  • Was the operation as successful as expected?
  • What effect has the operation had on my condition?
  • How will I expect to feel when I get home?
  • How long will it be before I'm back to normal?

Managing pain

Tell your nurse as soon as you start to feel any pain so that they can give you painkilling medication as soon as possible to stop it getting worse (the medication can take 20 minutes to start working).

Avoiding blood clots

The sooner you can start to move around, the better. Lying in bed for too long can cause some of your blood to pool in your legs. This puts you at risk of a blood clot.

To help prevent a blood clot, do some leg exercises. Try flexing your knee, flexing your ankle and rotating your foot.

You may be given special support stockings to wear after surgery to help your blood circulation. Your nurse or doctor will explain how you should use these. Some people are given an injection to thin the blood slightly to help reduce the risk of clots.

Enhanced recovery

Research shows the earlier you get out of bed and start walking, eating and drinking after your operation, the better.

Your hospital may offer an enhanced recovery programme if you've had major surgery. This rehabilitation programme aims to get you back to full health quickly, which means you could go home sooner than traditionally expected.

Plan for your days following surgery

It's important to arrange for appropriate care following your operation. For elderly patients, it's important to arrange for suitable equipment and care. Patients shouldn't be afraid to ask for things that may help them, such as a wheelchair or walking frame.


Before you leave hospital you may (depending on the type of operation you had) have an appointment with a physiotherapist, who will be able to advise you about any exercises you need to carry out.

You'll also be given advice about how to care for your wound, a dose of painkillers, and any equipment you may require, such as dressings, bandages, crutches and splints.

Each hospital will have its own policy and arrangements for discharging patients. Your discharge will be affected by:

  • how quickly your health improves while you're in hospital
  • what support you'll need after you return home

Read more about leaving hospital, which includes information on getting a sick note.

Transport home

You won't be able to drive yourself home after surgery - get someone to pick you up or take you home in a taxi. It's a good idea to have an adult available to help you for at least 24 hours after surgery.

General questions you may want to ask

  • Who should I call if I have any concerns once I'm home?
  • What should I be trying to do on my own – for example, going to the bathroom and getting out of bed
  • Is there anything I should avoid doing?
  • When can I go back to work?
  • How much pain, bruising or swelling should I expect when I get home?
  • When and where will any stitches be removed?
  • Do I need to return to hospital or my GP for follow-up? If so, when will this be?

Page last reviewed: 13/07/2011

Don't be surprised if you feel very tired when you get home, especially if you've had a major operation or a general anaesthetic.

It's important to move around as soon as possible after surgery and follow your doctor's advice on getting active again. This will encourage your blood to flow and your wounds to heal, and it will build up strength in your muscles. 

Generally, try to get back into your regular routine as soon as possible. Use this as an opportunity to make a fresh start: to eat more healthily,start exercising to stay in shape,and(if you are a smoker) quit smoking.

If you have a dressing on the area that was cut for the operation, follow the instructions your nurse gave you to care for your wound at home.


Your doctor will have given you an idea of how long it will take to get back to normal.

As a rough guide, it'll take you about a week to recover from a simple operation such as gallbladder removal, and a few months to recover from a major operation such as a hip replacement.

For information on recovery specific to a procedure, click on the links below or look up your prodecure in the A-Z index.

How to tell if you might have a blood clot

Signs to look out for after your operation include:

  • pain or swelling in your leg
  • the skin of your leg feeling hot or discoloured
  • the veins near the surface of your leg appearing larger than normal

See Deep vein thrombosis - symptoms for more information. If you experience any of these symptoms, get medical help immediately.

Content provided by NHS Choices www.nhs.uk and adapted for Ireland by the Health A-Z.

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