3 Ways Surgery Impacts Your Sleep

This content was created by the National Sleep Foundation

After an operation, it’s logical to think that you’ll be able to help your body recover faster with some solid sleep in the days and nights ahead. But actually, sleep after surgery can be hard to come by, for several reasons. Read on to understand the relationship between the medical procedure and the quality and quantity of your sleep—and how you can maximize the rest you get to help you bounce back faster.

Impact of Anesthesia

It might seem that going under anesthesia is akin to going to sleep, meaning the hours you spend in surgery count towards your daily sleep total. But in fact, the opposite is true. Anesthetics do not replace natural sleep, so upon waking from surgery you may be facing a sleep debt for the amount of time that you were under. That anesthesia-induced fatigue might be exacerbated if you didn’t sleep well in the days leading up to your surgery, a frequent occurrence due to stress and anxiety over the upcoming procedure.

Medications Mess with Sleep Rhythms

Before, during, and after surgery, doctors give the patient a range of medications to aid in the operation’s success. For many of these medications, fatigue is a common side effect. For example, you might receive blood pressure medication to reduce your reading before surgery, or you might receive benzodiazepines to help with sedation or head off muscle spasms. The surgical team might even start a patient on antibiotics during the surgery itself to fight off potential infection. Fatigue and grogginess are common side effects of taking these medications, so you may find yourself falling asleep earlier at night or feeling tired when you wake in the morning.

On the flip side, steroids are used to decrease surgery-related inflammation, but they also cause patients to have trouble sleeping due to an uptick in energy after taking them. To curb the sleep side effects of steroids, take steroid meds in the morning, if possible.

Post-Surgery Pain Disrupts Sleep

No matter what type of surgery you had, some degree of pain or discomfort afterwards is natural. Getting yourself comfortable enough to relax is the first step to falling asleep, but that can be challenging if the surgery is in response to, say, a broken limb. Shifting positions or being required to sleep in a certain way that you are not used to can be disruptive. Depending on the surgery, it may be more comfortable to sleep upright in a chair or with pillows around you to limit movement.

Pain might also be responsible for waking you up during the night and preventing you from falling into a deep REM sleep. Sometimes, breathing exercises like focusing on a deep inhale through your nose, then slow exhale through your mouth, can help the body to relax. Other strategies include visualizing calming scenes, and gently tensing and relaxing muscles while you lie in bed, starting with your feet and working up to your neck. If you still find yourself struggling with sleep in the days following a surgery, talk with your doctor about other possible solutions.