With the fast-paced international world we live in, one of the topics that most patients are concerned about is “when is it safe to fly after my surgery?” As a general rule we tell our patients that they are “grounded” for 2 weeks (minimum). That hold true for long car and bus trips as well.
The problems with flying come from a number of aspects, but mostly revolve around over exertion and the increased risk of blood clots.
The average flier takes a suitcase when traveling, and even for a short trip the combined weight of the case and its contents tops 25-30lbs (the max allowable for the airlines is usually 45lbs). After surgery lifting is restricted to less than 5-15lbs (depending on the procedure) for at least 3-4 weeks. If flying, you really need to plan well and limit the weight you take along. Using a rolling suitcase helps, but sooner or later you have to pick the bag up to get it on or off the conveyor or into the overhead compartment, and you do not want to over exert and pop stitches or start something bleeding! This has become even more of an issue since airlines started charging for checking even one bag…you should see what some people try to cram under their seats or overhead!! Even getting around an airport can be more exercise than someone early post-operative can handle. Think of the distance from the check-in to the gates and between different gates and concourse. Getting from point A to point B can be challenging even without surgery, and especially if you are in a hurry. If you must travel early after surgery, you need to plan carefully. Allow extra time to get checked in and to the gate. Consider calling the airline ahead and arranging a ride with a shuttle or wheelchair in the airport. You do not want to overdo it and ruin the results of your surgery or open the door to complications.
The risk of blood clots is also a very real concern with air travel. Blood clots can form in the legs or arms when conditions allow the blood to pool (stop moving) or to thicken. If a clot forms it can cause swelling and pain at the site, but it can also break free and travel to the heart or lungs and cause serious injury or even death. When traveling in an airplane, passengers typically spend hours crammed into a tiny seat with their legs cramped under them, and then move very little during the flight. This creates the perfect situation for a blood clot to form. After surgery, patients are already at a higher risk of clotting due to surgical swelling and dehydration – add into this limited mobility in the plane and the results can be disastrous. If you have to fly after surgery, you want to make sure you drink LOTS of fluid to prevent dehydration and thickening of the blood. Also, plan to get up and move around the plane whenever it is allowed. Even bending and straightening legs and moving ankles can help to improve circulation. Compression stockings (ted hose) can also help the circulation. Most patients wear ted hose during and after surgery for a while…keep those handy and put them back on for the trip! Any little thing we can do to improve blood flow will keep you safe from a blood clot!
One other thing patients have asked is if the change in altitude in the airplane poses any risks or influences healing at all. Thankfully, since the cabin is pressurized in flight and the oxygen in the air is maintained at normal levels, there really should be no adverse effects on healing just from being up in a plane!
Obviously there are many thing to consider when traveling after surgery, and you want to stay safe and healthy. But, you also want to be able to enjoy your trip and to be able to accomplish your travel goals. The most important thing you need to do as a responsible patient is talk to your plastic surgeon about your travel plans so you can work together to make it a safe and successful situation for everyone! Happy travels!!