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ind Body Health

Rx: Preparing for Surgery

© David S. Sobel MD

The following is one in an ongoing series of columns entitled Mind Body Health by David S. Sobel MD. View all columns in series

Learn To Relax
Anxiety causes tension, and tension increases pain. So take steps to help yourself relax. If you already have a favorite relaxation exercise such as focusing on your breath or counting backwards, use it. If not, learn one and practice it ahead of time. You'll also find your technique helpful during brief procedures such as having blood drawn or an IV set up.

The hospital will ask you to sign an "informed consent" form for the anesthesia. Ask to do this a few days in advance. Reading a list of possible complications, however rare, may not be the best way to relax before your surgery.

Give Your Body Instructions
Autonomic nervous system functions such as pain, bowel contractions, blood flow, and even immune functioning were once considered beyond voluntary control. But research shows that we can learn to influence these processes to some degree and speed recovery. It appears our bodies have built-in healing systems activated by positive instructions, thoughts, words, suggestions, and images. There have been a number of studies to show that giving our bodies specific, detailed instructions for healing can speed recovery. Make your own audio tape with the scripts or choose a commercially available tape.

Choose What You Hear
Contrary to popular belief, general anesthesia does not completely shut off your brain during an operation. Studies demonstrate that anesthetized patients are sometimes aware of speech or sounds around them though they do not usually remember it afterwards. Your body may respond to what you hear. So wear ear plugs or, better yet, listen to an audio tape.

Studies show that people who heard soothing music before, during, and after surgery needed less sedative. One investigator calculates that music in the operating room equals roughly two and a half milligrams of Valium. And a Japanese study found that listening to music before and during surgery reduced stress hormones in the blood.

Verbal suggestions can be heard subconsciously. In one study, women who underwent abdominal surgery while listening to taped suggestions needed 24% less pain medications the day after surgery than patients who were given a blank tape. In a similar study, hysterectomy patients who listened to positive suggestions during surgery left the hospital one and a half days earlier, and had fewer complications than those who were given blank tapes.

Some Fear is Good
Uncontrolled anxiety may impair your healing. But don't be afraid of being a little afraid - you have good reason. Studies show we may need a certain level of fear and arousal to prepare us for the stress of surgery.

Think Positively
Try to think of your surgery as a positive event with positive outcomes. Remember why you are doing this: to improve your health and live a fuller life. Think of your hospital experience as a chance to relax, read books, catch up on sleep, meet new people, and, of course, get well.

Research shows that people who take control of their own thoughts and feelings suffer less pre- and post-operative stress.

Watch for thoughts like: "I feel so helpless, there's nothing I can do. I can't stand it, this is too difficult." Try substituting more positive thoughts: "I can get through this. The discomfort will pass. We're all doing everything we can to insure a safe operation and a speedy recovery. I will feel better and be healthier soon."

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About The Author
David S. Sobel, M.D., M.P.H., is a practicing physician in adult medicine and Medical Director of Patient Education and Health Promotion for Kaiser Permanente Northern California. He is physician lead for the national initiative in Self-Care and Shared Decision-Making for Kaiser Permanente. He is coauthor of Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Conditions, The Healing Brain,......more
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