Open Inguinal Hernia Repair: My story of recovery
UPDATE: The hernia came back three months after the surgery. This is called a recurrent hernia and it is rare (maybe 1 or 2% of the time this happens). I have had additional surgery for this. It was laparoscopic (as opposed to the first one, which was “open”), so I can tell you the pros and cons of both methods and can also compare the recoveries. I’ll do this in a separate post, since I think this post remains valid for most people.
I recently had surgery for an inguinal hernia, and in hope of helping people who may need this to be done, I have written a diary of what I experienced. If you’re not planning on having hernia repair, feel free to skip this and go directly to the music!
Before the surgery, I searched for as much information about it as I could. I knew it was going to hurt, but how much pain would I feel and how quickly it would go away? Would it be bearable? I was scared of the unknown. Reading about it and learning more was comforting.
When I searched, I found a few “diaries” that people had written about their own experiences. These diaries helped me get a sense of what to expect because they were honest about the pain. It is in this vein that I am now describing my experiences.
Okay, before we talk about the surgery and the recovery, let’s talk about me. If you’ve visited this blog before you already know that I’m a musician and a scientist – neither of which has much bearing on how I might deal with hernia surgery – so let me give you a few other details.
- I am 41 years old.
- I am relatively “in shape” as they say. I bike three miles to work and back on weekdays. I also jog 20 to 25 miles a week. On days that I don’t jog, I do sit-ups for about five minutes.
- I eat relatively healthy foods.
- I am optimistic. Generally speaking, I think things will work out for the best.
Those details should help you translate my story into one that can help you understand what will happen to you.
One last thing before we get to the diary… Here is a list of things I am very glad I stocked up on before the surgery:
- Gatorade: I was dehydrated and taking medications that needed to be swallowed with lots of fluids. If you like Gatorade, I would recommend you stockpile it as well, however, water is just as good.
- Canned soup: Real cooking was out of the question for the first few days and canned soup was soft and easy to digest. I got a four-pack of the most basic Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. This was great for treating the initial sore throat caused by the breathing tube used during surgery.
- Cough medicine: Coughing after this surgery was both very painful and very stressful. It put a lot of pressure on the wound. I was lucky and already had a supply of medications (Mucinex and NyQuil). I didn’t expect to need them, but two days after surgery I developed an evil cough. It was strange in that it was isolated from any other cold, flu or fever symptoms; aside from the surgery, I felt healthy and could breathe fine. However, this cough meant business. Even though my breathing was regular, I had crud in my lungs that needed to come out.
- Ibuprofen and acetaminophen: Both of these helped relieve pain and swelling, and my surgeon said I could take them at the exact same time since they operate on different pathways. For the first week I took 600 mg of ibuprofen and 500 mg of acetaminophen four times a day (after meals and at bed time).
- Laxatives: I had milk of magnesia, in liquid form, and docusate sodium, in pill form. The drugs and the anesthetics caused constipation and the muscles that usually take care of these things were out of order for the first week during recovery.
Now, without further ado….
Day 0: I was at UNC and everything was super smooth except for the very first step: checking in.
I was supposed to go the main hospital, but the front door was locked. So, after a cab driver yelled the directions from his car, I found a side entrance that worked. From there I had to figure out where the admissions waiting room was. This would have been obvious if I had entered from the front door, but seeing as I came in through the side, I had to look around for it. From there they gave me a map to another waiting room, but that was vague and included mis-located landmarks.
The surgical team itself, however, was great. Everything went as planned. I checked into the hospital at 6am and checked out at 11:30am. I was back home by 1pm. Awesome.
The pain medications from surgery took awhile to wear off. I felt good for most of the day. There was a little pain where my hernia had been – but it was minimal compared to actual hernia pain. I was sitting up, moving around the house, drinking, eating and could watch movies on TV. That said, I was also very cautious because my body was doped up and couldn’t tell me what really hurt; I didn’t push it.
I was also super thirsty with a touch of a sore throat. Presumably the breathing tube dried everything out. I drank a lot of liquids that day and had a double helping of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. The soup worked wonders on the sore throat.
At around 6pm (six hours after returning home) I started to feel sharp pains on the left side of my abdomen, near the area around where the operation took place, but they were not centered on that location. The whole left side of my torso ached.
The surgeon also gave me a prescription for Percocet. I took two of these before trying to sleep. This drug was supposed to be a very strong pain killer and make me drowsy – which seemed ideal at bedtime. Unfortunately, the Percocet had no effect on me other than to make me feel groggy. It did not reduce the pain and I did not sleep. I looked on-line and this appears to be relatively common. For some people Percocet is amazing – so if you have it, try it to find out – I’m just not one of those people.
The good news was that the pain wasn’t unbearable. Even though I didn’t sleep, I was able to rest on my side, rather than lay on my back all night long. Because of this, I did not attempt to take Percocet again after the first night.
Day 1: Today I moved around pretty slowly. But I moved. I went up and down stairs a few times without any problems. I walked to the end of the street and back and that seemed fine. I was constipated (even after taking laxatives), and that was irritating, but it wasn’t terrible. I took a shower, watched a movie, baked some bread, played the guitar and tried to figure out some of the insurance payments. Over all, things were OK.
The pain was interesting. Much of the left side of my abdomen was very sensitive. Even though the scar was quite low, I felt pain all the way up to my rib cage. Sometimes it was very acute and sharp – this could be very, very intense – other times it was dull and throbbing in a way comparable to mild hernia pain. It went back and forth between these two states – with most of the time being dull and throbbing. Transitions from laying to sitting or to standing and back were rough. I took these slowly. However, once I was up, or down, things calmed down and I wasn’t too uncomfortable.
In the morning I took a full dose of milk of magnesia without any results. Around dinner time I took docusate sodium and that didn’t have much of an effect either. Right before bed I took another full dose of milk of magnesia.
Another thing that happened on this day was my appetite tapered. The day before I was starving and ate quite a bit. This day I had difficulty finishing meals.
Day 2: I slept a lot better than I did the first night. I also defecated, so I no longer worried that was is going to be a problem for me.
The pain seemed more acute . It was sharp and intense. However, it only happened when I transitioned from sitting to standing, or standing to sitting.
My head seemed much clearer than it had felt the day before (and the day before that). I wasn’t as easily distracted as I had been.
My appetite was still off. I felt hungry and full at the same time. I guess “bloated” is the usual adjective for this, but it wasn’t quite that. My head said “eat” and my stomach said “don’t eat”. This might be due to the milk of magnesia and stool softener I took the day before. I’m not sure.
I went for a 30 minute walk. It was slow, and at times I had to stop because of a “gripping” type of pain that would come on strong but then fade relatively quickly. I made it to the nearest coffee shop and got a hot chocolate. This was delicious.
I’ve also developed a cough and this was very painful. I felt a strong burning sensation at the site of the incision every time I coughed. I saw on-line that women recovering from C-sections often pushed a pillow against their abdomens to help offset the pressure created by coughing. I tried this, but could never get the timing right.
Day 3: My appetite returned. The dull-throb pain was replaced with a very acute stabbing pain. It was very intense, but short lived. Coughing was still an issue. I went for an hour long walk and took a two hour long nap when it was over. Walking was much better this day than before. Yesterday, the whole left side of my abdomen would seize up and I’d have to stand for a bit until the sensation passed. Today there was none of that. Just the occasional sharp pain at the site of the incision.
I took Nyquil to go to sleep. I was coughing in bed and that made sleeping impossible without the drugs.
Day 4: The short, searing and stabbing pain that occurred when I transitioned to and from sitting, laying or standing was as bad as ever. In some ways it seemed worse simply because it didn’t seem to be letting up. Everything else had improved, but these were just as bad as before. It became harder and harder to tolerate this pain and say, “I expected this to be bad”, because sooner or later I couldn’t help but think, “I expected this to be better than yesterday”.
I googled the “searing” and “burning” pain that I was feeling and saw that it was a symptom of infection. However, I reasoned that if I had an infection, I would feel those sensations all of the time, not just when I sat down or stood up. Furthermore, I didn’t have any other symptoms of infection.
I was hungry, but easily filled – I ate less food than usual.
Walking was definitely better. I walked another two miles and it was much better than day before.
Coughing was still a problem, but seemed to be getting slightly better as the day went on.
Day 5: This was a breakthrough day for me. The short, stabbing pains finally started to let up. This was encouraging to no end. I was improving on all fronts. I took another two mile walk without any major pains. I attended a play in the evening and most of the friends that I met there had forgotten that I’d even had surgery.
Day 6: Everything continued improve. I moved about with very little hindrance. I still had pain – especially after standing up or sitting down – but it was so minor that, externally, I doubt that I showed that I was experiencing them. The incision also appeared to be healing very well. I was confident that I could go back to work without fear that I would be excessively tired or in pain.
Day 7-14: Every day I continued to improve. I walked at least 30 minutes each day, and by by day 12 was walking over an hour without any significant pain. I still felt some mild discomfort, but so mild I could ignore it.
By day 14, the incision had pretty much healed and the glue that they used to seal it had peeled off. That area was still relatively sensitive to pressure, but coughing no longer hurt very much and no longer stressed me out (before, each time I coughed, I thought I was going to upset the mesh that was now part of me). The swelling had also gone down a lot. My lower abdomen was almost flat, although it was still a little raised where my hernia was, indicating that the swelling wasn’t 100% gone.
Day 15: Today I had my follow up appointment and was told I was healing well. I was also told I could start lifting heavier objects (up to 20 pounds), but I had to be smart about it and not lift by bending over. The bummer is that I was told I should hold off on jogging for another week, and hold off on biking for even longer (perhaps up to 6 weeks after the surgery). The doctor emphasized that the mesh takes 6 weeks to be fully incorporated into the muscles and that time is the only thing that makes that happen.
Week 3: I started jogging again, alternating five minutes of running with two minutes of walking for three miles. After 10 minutes of running, I felt a sharp pain in the area around the surgery like the pain I felt when I started to walk again. It went away while I walked. Later, the pain returned, but I was able to run through it. And that was the last I felt of it, and I’ve gone for three more jogs (the last of which was for 30 consecutive minutes).
Week 4: Although the scar is still quite bruised, it is only mildly tender. I can go for hours without thinking about it. I walk, run and do most everything without any thought of it. However, that said, I still can’t lift heavy objects, and singing and standing can become uncomfortable – but even these things are improving.
Week 6: The doctor said that after 6 weeks I would no longer have any restrictions on lifting, biking or anything else. In theory, the mesh is as strongly attached to me as it will ever be. There is no longer a significant risk that the internal (and permanent) stitches can be damaged.
To test this theory, I have done pretty much everything – lifted heavy objects (my luggage when traveling), biked to work (up rather steep hills), done hard running workouts etc. Everything felt fine and there is no longer any pain whatsoever. When biking, my left side (where the surgery was performed) feels a little more rigid than my right, but this is not a painful in any way. Presumably this is because the “ridge of healing” is still present (although it, too, seems to be reducing – albeit slowly).
As far as I can tell, the symptoms (or lack there of) suggest that the surgery was a complete success. When people ask, I tell them that I am 100% healed.