Steps to Take Before Taking Your Next Step: The Best Way to Elevate Feet After Surgery
If you’ve recently had foot, ankle or leg surgery, there’s a good chance that your doctor discharged you with a long list of post-operative instructions. One of the most important yet least understood tasks on the list is post-surgery leg elevation. It seems simple, right? Just prop your treated leg up on a pillow and go about your life. Indeed, there isn’t that much to it. But the truth is that many people improperly elevate the legs, which can actually make things worse. Understanding a little bit more about this post-op principle will help ensure that you get on the mend faster and with no complications.
Why is Elevating the Legs So Important?
You often hear surgeons discuss proper foot elevation as the single-most important thing you can do after surgery. Why? Simply put, elevating the lower extremities reduces trauma to the treated area, which can in turn help you heal better and faster. According to the experts, keeping the foot elevated can bring a slew of benefits ranging from minimizing pain and swelling (and therefore keeping you comfortable, even when you’re in the early stages of recovery) to preventing potentially life-threatening blood clots.
One of the main reasons why doctors emphasize foot elevation is because it can significantly reduce your risk of developing deep vein thrombosis (DVT). This condition occurs when a blood clot forms in a deep vein, usually in the legs. DVT is dangerous because, if left untreated, the blood clot could break off and travel to the lungs, causing pulmonary embolism. When such complications occur, your blood’s oxygen levels drop, which can damage the lungs and even cause heart failure. Leg elevation, coupled with compression socks, can keep blood flowing to help prevent DVT.
Keeping the legs up also helps provide essential nutrients and oxygen to the body’s cells. If the fluid is stagnant and accumulates, which can happen if your legs aren’t properly elevated, it’s unable to transfer these nutrients to the parts of the body that need it the most, especially during healing. As you can see, basic circulation is extremely important to healing and everyday health. Unfortunately, though, sitting and standing positions require our veins to fight against gravity. On the other hand, elevation can help blood flow more easily and efficiently, equating to quicker healing.
You’ll want to do everything you can after surgery to minimize lymphedema (swelling), including keeping the legs elevated for a prolonged period of time and staying off your feet as much as possible. While some swelling is normal following any surgery, it’s important that you reduce swelling to promote comfort and encourage proper healing. Keeping the legs elevated will prevent any fluid from becoming stagnant, which causes pain and swelling, so it’s definitely worth the extra effort to get it right.
How Long Should I Elevate My Feet?
Elevation time varies from patient to patient and procedure to procedure, but for most patients, doctors recommend elevating the feet for between five days and two weeks post-operatively. The initial post-operative period—usually between 24 and 36 hours after surgery—may require constant or prolonged elevation to help wounds heal and bleeding subside. Your doctor may suggest that you elevate for about 30 minutes every two hours or on an as-needed basis if you notice a high amount of swelling or pain after the initial recovery period. Some conditions, including diabetes and others that cause poor blood flow, can slow down healing or interfere with the process, requiring additional elevation time.
The Right Way to Elevate Legs After Surgery
Now that we know it’s extremely important to master the art of elevation for the best possible post-op result, let’s discuss the best way to elevate the foot after surgery. Our founder, vascular surgeon Dr. Christopher Dickson, invented the Lounge Doctor Leg Rest foot elevation pillow to help curb improper positioning, which he saw often while in practice. According to Dr. Dickson, improperly elevating the legs after surgery can actually make healing worse instead of better, so understanding how to do it right is just as important as doing it at all.
The Basics: Lie on a flat surface, such as the bed or a sofa, with your legs elevated to about 6 inches above the heart. Using an elevation pillow for feet and a contour pillow to support the head will help ensure that your legs and feet are raised to the proper angle and height while keeping you comfortable. Keep thighs tilted to about 45 degrees, the knee bent and the lower leg (knee to ankle) tilted to between 15 and 20 degrees.
Need more info? Make sure to read this how-to guide to using the Lounge Doctor for more in-depth leg elevation instructions.
The Dos and Don’ts of Leg Elevation
Learning how to elevate the feet in the correct manner can mean the difference between speedy healing, reduced pain and improved blood flow and a slew of negative results, such as increased pain, swelling and risk of infection. Follow these dos and don’ts to ensure that you’re not elevating the legs the wrong way.
- Do: Lie flat on your back. As tempting as it is to elevate while you’re sitting upright, it’s much more beneficial if you start with a flat back. Why? The legs must be elevated to a level above the heart—it’s all about gravity!
- Don’t: Sit in a recliner. The key here is to make sure that your upper body, primarily your heart, is positioned at an angle below the legs. Unfortunately, you can’t easily accomplish this if you’re sitting upright in a recliner or a regular chair.
- Do: Use an elevation aid. As you can see, getting the proper angles and height right is key to proper leg elevation, and using a foot rest pillow can help you achieve these specifications without sacrificing comfort or setting up a new rig every time you need to elevate.
- Don’t: Prop your legs up on a table. You won’t get the angle right by propping your legs up on a table, or any other surface for that matter, and the hard surface may cause additional pain and discomfort. Always use an elevation pillow for feet to ensure safe, comfortable healing.
- Do: Practice the RICE Method. Rest, ice, compression and elevation are as vital in post-operative scenarios as they are when treating injuries. Couple your post-surgery elevation with icing and compression garments for even more healing benefits.
- Don’t: Keep your legs straight. It’s counter-intuitive, but you should try to make sure that your legs are bent at the proper angle while elevated, with the thighs tilted to no more than 45 degrees and the knees bent to keep blood flowing properly.
Leg Elevation Tips: Getting Through It
Even if you’ve got your post-surgery elevation strategy down to a science, there are still some things you can do to make the process easier. Getting through the recovery process unscathed requires you to listen to your body, lean on others and, as much as possible, minimize stress so that you don’t add any additional strain to your already-taxed body. Here are some helpful tips for successful post-surgery leg elevation:
- Ask for Help—It can be extremely difficult for independent people to accept that they may need a bit of help in the days and weeks following surgery. But the truth is that in order to minimize injury and prevent pushing yourself too hard, you should learn to ask for help after surgery. A friend, family member or caregiver can do things for you to minimize strain and pressure on the treated area. He or she can also keep you company and maybe even cheer you up.
- Monitor Pain—As best as you can, try to get in touch with your body, measuring pain, swelling and mood every day. This will help your doctor gauge where you’re at in the healing process and will allow he or she to make adjustments as needed. There are apps you can install on your smartphone to help you monitor pain and walk you through recovery, including BuddyCare and PeerWell Rehab.
- Slow Down and Rest—One of the most tempting things to do when you’re on the mend is to get moving before you’re ready. The key is to get as much rest as possible, so you should do everything you can to make the experience enjoyable, like readying a stack of books, magazines and TV shows to binge. Make sure that you listen to your body and increase your physical activity level slowly, taking baby steps. Tip: Consider investing in a pair of glasses that lets you read while lying down!
- Hydrate and Nourish—Consuming enough water is an important part of the recovery process, as H2O is needed for proper delivery of nutrients to the cells throughout your body. On the same token, you need to equip your body with extra nourishment so that it’s better armed to heal. Dr. Dickson recommends following a plant-based diet after surgery to give the body additional vitamins and minerals, which are essential for recuperation.
- Listen to Your Body—While almost no surgery patient comes out of a procedure with zero discomfort, your doctor should prepare a treatment plan that mitigates pain and discomfort to some degree. If you feel like something’s off or you’re experiencing moderate or severe pain, trust your instincts and give your doctor a call. Daily monitoring will help you determine if your condition is worsening or improving.
- Follow the Rules—Remember that everything your doctor recommends, he or she recommends for a reason. Do your best to follow post-operative care instructions religiously. Think of this as your full-time job as you recover. Ask for both physical and digital copies of instructions to ensure that you can always reference them when needed.
- Do Your Best to De-Stress—Since you now have the job of focused recovery, you don’t want to cloud things with extra tasks, including work and chores. As much as possible, eliminate any and all day-to-day tasks while you’re on the mend. Rely on family, friends and services as you recover—drop-off laundry, dog walkers and (healthy) food delivery services are your friends!
Why Use the Lounge Doctor?
One of the simplest ways to achieve better blood flow while you’re healing is to use an elevating foot rest cushion so that your legs are in the proper position. Opting for a specialized post-surgery pillow is a much smarter move than relying on regular pillows or cushions that you find around your house. The difference is in the precision—a good leg elevation device will place your legs at the exact right angle for ideal healing, all while keeping you comfortable as you rest.
There is one word of caution with regard to leg elevation pillows. Contrary to popular belief, not all are created equally. The Lounge Doctor Leg Rest is the only leg elevation device that elevates the legs correctly. Its unique, ergonomic design is based on science to maximize venous blood flow and reduce swelling. It was developed by a board-certified vascular surgeon to provide the most medically effective leg elevation. If your goal is quick, safe and comfortable recovery, then the Lounge Doctor is the only choice.