Prehabilitation Exercises Before Surgery: Everything You Need to Know

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We talk a lot about rehab exercises after surgery. Following a personalized post-surgery physical therapy plan is one of the best things you can do to help your body heal. At-home rehabilitation exercises can help you reestablish joint functionality, retrain and strengthen muscles, speed up recovery time, and even minimize scar tissue. So what’s this about prehab?

Prehabilitation Exercises Are Done Before Surgery

Just as rehab exercise helps you recover from surgery, prehabilitation exercises help you get ready for surgery — and ease your recovery as well.

Prehabilitation can combine strength exercises, cardiovascular work, and functional task training. These exercises should be started six to eight weeks prior to surgery to get the most benefit.

But of course, depending on your condition and the nature of your upcoming surgery, you might need to take special precautions with your exercise plan.

Prehabilitation Tips

If you have a surgery coming up on the calendar, you’ll want to do everything possible to increase the chances of success. If it’s a knee replacement or shoulder surgery, for example, strengthening the muscles that support the joint can be very helpful before the operation, and can make recovery easier. However, your injury may preclude certain exercises, which might do more harm than good. That’s why we’re going to put this first tip in bold type:

  • Before starting any prehabilitation exercises, get guidance from a professional — either your doctor or a licensed physical therapist.

A medical professional who is familiar with your case is the first person you should see before beginning any pehab exercise program. They’ll be able to tell you exactly which exercises will be most helpful for you, which exercises you should avoid, and how often and how intensely you should perform your exercises.

  • If you want these exercises to make a difference, you’ll need to do them for a while. We mentioned six to eight weeks as a good target. You can accomplish a lot in that amount of time. Waiting until the last minute to start prehabilitation exercises, on the other hand, won’t do much more than give you sore muscles going into surgery.
  • Start slowly. If you haven’t exercised much in the past, you’ll want to build your way into this. Overdoing it, especially in the beginning, increases the risk of injury.
  • Do something. Any exercise, even if it’s just a slow walk, is better than no exercise at all (again, keeping in mind that first tip about getting approval from your doctor first).

Do You Need Special Equipment for Prehab?

Everybody’s situation is unique. Your exercise needs will be different from the next person’s. Depending on what you’re able to do and what your doctor recommends, your prehab exercise plan could range from a simple walk (no equipment required) to strength training or range of motion work with specialized, low-cost physical therapy products.

More Than Just Exercise

Not all prehab is about exercise, but all prehab is about getting the body ready for surgery. Other interventions that may be necessary before you will be cleared for an operation include quitting smoking (to reduce the risk of lung and wound infections) and getting diabetes and hypertension under control.

Getting Prehabilitation Before Your Surgery

While studies have shown that prehab prior to surgery can reduce the chances of needing inpatient rehab by up to 73 percent, that doesn’t mean your insurance will be willing to cover it. Visits to a physical therapist might be limited, so you’ll need to check first. But even a single visit to a PT before surgery can help — even if they can’t personally guide your daily workouts, they can give you a plan for your own at-home prehab, prescribing appropriate exercises for the weeks leading up to your surgery.

Example Prehabilitation Exercises

Appropriate prehab exercises are as varied as you can imagine. Again, it depends on what you’re able to do, the limitations of your condition, and the specific systems your doctor wants you to target and improve before surgery. Here are just a few of the things you might be asked to do:

  • Take a walk
  • Water aerobics
  • At-home stretches
  • Strength training with weights, resistance bands, or even your own body weight
  • Riding a stationary bike, either for cardio or range of motion in the knee
  • Other range of motion exercises
  • Balance exercises
  • Functional training