Going back to your normal routine following significant illness or injury can be problematic. This is especially true when your usual lifestyle involves manual labor, running around after your children, or returning to your favorite sports and exercises.
How can you recover well and return to good fitness levels without exacerbating an injury, opening up stitches, or even adding new ailments through overexertion, for example?
The millions of registered nurses (RNs) who work in a wide range of settings in the US healthcare sector are a highly valuable source of help with this topic.
For instance, nurses in hospitals are proficient at guiding patients toward personalized and vital post-surgical care and rehabilitation, and also exercises that you can do to prepare for your operation. Meanwhile, nurses who work in the community provide their patients with help and advice to manage long-term illnesses so that they can stay as active and independent as possible.
This is a vital skill set for nurses to have, as it can be a balancing act. How can nurses get you active and fit, without causing complications or stretching you too far, when you have experienced illness or injury?
Why do nurses get you ‘up and about’?
First, let’s explore the reasons behind focused and strategic recovery and rehabilitation support by nurses.
If you have had a surgical procedure recently, or know someone who has, you may have been surprised by how quickly a patient is out of bed and active these days. Within hours of an operation, patients can often be up and about in the hospital ward.
According to the NHS in the UK, “Research has shown that the earlier a person gets out of bed and starts walking, eating and drinking after having an operation, the shorter their recovery time will be.”
Of course, there are times when carrying out a few independent tasks by yourself needs to be balanced with getting some rest in bed or a comfy chair. However, modern medical science has proven that too much inactivity after some forms of illness or injury can be counterproductive.
For instance, if you stay still too long, muscles can stiffen, your digestive system can become less efficient, and your respiratory health can decline, making a return to active life even harder. Also, when you start moving around in a measured and supervised way post-surgery, it helps blood flow, enabling the healing process to be supported and preventing blood clots from forming.
Movement and better blood circulation have been found to help reduce scar tissue and the chance of infection following surgery. This is because your blood carries oxygen and nutrients to wound sites and other areas of the body. Clearly, getting that process happening as efficiently as possible post-surgery can be important.
Even when you have had major surgery, such as a hip replacement, nursing staff will encourage you to get out of bed and walk as soon as possible. It can help to address swelling and stiffness and will also give them firm confirmation that your surgery was a success.
Keep in mind also that establishing levels of pain post-surgery can be important. It can help your medical team to assess the amount of pain relief you need and the progress of your recovery. So, gentle movement tests will help to gauge this while you are still under medical supervision from hospital care teams.
Moving around can also sometimes help to manage pain and inflammation much better than staying still for long periods. This is also connected to moving your bones, joints and muscles, and improving blood flow.
A gentle guiding hand
There can be reluctance, or a touch of fear involved, when you need to get active again following an illness or injury that resulted in substantial medical intervention. Encouragement and education can be vital in getting patients to engage with post-operative therapies, especially physical activities that can seem a little overwhelming after the stress and pain of surgery.
Fortunately, RNs are highly skilled at motivating their patients and explaining the reasons why they need to move about and restore or retain their fitness. A lot of this pivots on establishing a good relationship with patients, which is something that they are trained to do.
For example, if you learn more about being a second career nurse, you will see that your training includes field rotations in various settings where nurses are employed. When you are enrolled with Holy Family University on its Second Degree Distance Hybrid BSN, free clinical placement support enables you to optimize this essential nursing work experience. From this, graduates develop the personal and professional abilities they need to provide holistic care, including fine-tuning their empathy and communication skills. All of this can instill greater confidence and willingness in post-operative patients.
What nurses do to support post-operative fitness
The whole medical team – including specialist physiotherapies – can be involved in planning the best way for a patient to return to an appropriate level of activity and fitness, during and after hospital stays or rehabilitation programs.
However, the RNs are likely to be the healthcare professionals who help patients put this into action, on a daily basis during their initial recovery period.
What this recuperation and activity plan looks like depends on the medical procedure that the patient is recovering from, of course, and factors such as the patient’s age and pre-existing level of fitness.
The plan will be created from a detailed assessment of the patient’s status and needs. Even their previous medical history is taken into account, to ensure that the recovery program does not trigger any pre-existing conditions.
Recovery fitness goals will then be set, including a series of milestones to be reached if the rehabilitation is likely to be prolonged.
It could well be that the first few hours or days after surgery involve a series of simple steps to get moving again and restore the patient’s independence. It could be as straightforward as sitting upright and feeding themselves. Or, they could be tasked with moving from the bed to a chair with only a light guiding touch from nursing staff.
Then, the next steps could be getting out of bed and taking a stroll to use the toilet when required. They could then be encouraged to get dressed and walk further.
Alternatively, if a period of time spent in bed is mandatory for recovery from the procedure, then that would be taken into account. In this case, the individualized exercise plan could include activities to protect or improve upper body flexibility and strength, such as stretches and lifts.
Once this initial mobility and activity support is given, exercises to strengthen the patients’ muscles further and build their stamina can begin, to ensure that they return to full mobility and flexibility as quickly as possible.
Equipment and other support
Naturally, nurses are trained to know when specialist equipment or treatment options are needed to support a patient’s postoperative recovery. This includes any medications that can aid the restoration of fitness levels – for example, anti-inflammatory medicines that could potentially make moving around a little easier.
If a patient is encouraged to get out of bed and walk, they may be provided with crutches or a walking frame, to provide initial support while healing is underway. These could then be gradually dispensed with, to work on strength and get patients walking without aid.
Bedbound patients may be supported to use equipment that enables them to work on their arm strength and flexibility, such as bars they can pull themselves up with, or weights they can lift.
Better stamina may be the immediate target for recovering from illness and injury. In this case, the rehabilitation activities may focus on doing a little more activity each day, to expand the period before the patient becomes fatigued. Technology can provide help with this, in the form of wearable devices. These devices can monitor and measure a patient’s activity levels, heart rate and periods of rest, to make sure that the individual is sticking to their goals with no adverse reactions.
Some of the post-operative care and rehabilitation that RNs provide may be designed to support or complement the physical therapy provided in hospital. For instance, some people benefit greatly from occupational therapy advice and activities that improve their independence.
An illustration would be demonstrations to support normal daily life, while you are limited in your movements due to using crutches or a wheelchair. Being able to make your own meals or go outside for a while can support both your mental and physical health.
Non-hospital recovery support
The physical therapy that nurses deliver in hospital environments is not the only way that these healthcare professionals support patients to recover or improve their fitness levels, of course.
Did you know that in some situations, doing special activities and exercises before undergoing surgery can reduce the amount of time spent in hospital, and make post-operative recovery smoother? This can be particularly true in vulnerable patients facing cardiovascular procedures.
Many community-based nurses support patients who have a long recovery process from surgery, or who are learning to live with chronic illnesses. As part of their holistic approach, nurses are the sources of ideas and support for patients to get as active as possible, as safely as possible, in normal everyday life.
This could include various forms of therapy that keep the patient active or even distracted, rather than spending too much time alone or in a chair.
Even the reassurance of having a community-based nurse to discuss daily activities with can make you more confident in engaging with activities that build your fitness, agility and stamina.
Flagging up issues
Reference has already been made to the fact that one of the priorities of post-operative rehabilitation care is to cautiously test a patient’s faculties, abilities and pain levels. No one wants to discover that a significant health issue has remained dormant during the hospital stay, only to seriously delay your recovery when you get home.
For this reason, professional nurses encourage patients to be honest and open about any discomfort or other issues post-surgery or when they have an illness. It can help the healthcare team to be more accurate with their diagnosis and treatment.
It is vital to tell nurses if a particular movement or activity results in a big uptick in pain, or even when resting creates significant issues – such as if your back is hurting when you are laying down.
Patient safety is paramount to professional nurses, so they will advise individuals on ways to exercise and stay active without causing harm. They will regularly check in with patients to assess not only their progress according to the rehab plan, but also their level of comfort, pain management and mental positivity.
The best nurses will also answer any queries so that they can help patients modify and adapt everything they do, to ensure the best possible outcome following injury or illness.
Hospital aftercare and fitness
Finally, it is important to point out that most post-illness or surgical fitness and health plans don’t end abruptly when you return home.
Hospital-based nursing professionals often give their patients clear instructions on aftercare, including the level of activity and mobility they should aim for in the coming days.
In a physician’s clinic or health center, community-based nurses can help patients stay on top of these recovery priorities. However, they also do a great job of preparing their patients for the prospect of hospital stays due to the need for a surgical procedure.
What is certainly clear is that professional nurses in all settings want the best possible health outcome for every patient, and this means ‘actively’ encouraging patient movement and fitness.
Dr. Kelly Han is a seasoned medical professional with a passion for holistic wellness and integrative health. Based in San Francisco, her expertise spans across various domains of health, from fitness and skincare to oral health and weight management.
Understanding the intricate connections between different aspects of health, Dr. Han believes in a comprehensive approach. Whether it’s the latest skincare regimen, effective weight loss strategies, or understanding hormonal imbalances, she’s dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based advice and actionable insights on a wide array of health topics.
Through her articles, Dr. Han aims to empower individuals to take charge of their well-being, offering them the knowledge and tools they need to lead healthier, more vibrant lives. Join her in exploring the multifaceted world of health, beauty, and wellness.