The scope of hand surgery is very wide, running from surgeries that can be done with a needle (percutaneous hand surgery) with no real incision, to more traditional open surgeries with an incision in the palm, thumb or finger. Because of the diversity in procedures and patients, hand surgery recovery time varies greatly.
In complex cases, hand therapy may continue for months. If the condition was severe, or existed untreated for many years, complete return to normal hand function may be impossible. Still, every case will see gradual improvement. In the least complex cases, hand surgery recovery time can be as short as 2 days.
The Hand Surgery Spectrum
On the less complex side of the spectrum, some hand surgeries involve releasing tissue that catches on nearby ligaments, interrupting smooth hand or finger movement. More complex hand surgeries involve removing extensive scar tissue and/or repairing nerves with microsurgery techniques and restoring damaged tendons with grafts.
All of these procedures have unique recovery times and each patient has a slightly different experience within that. In the least complicated hand surgeries, especially those performed on the non-dominant hand, patients can often return to work in a day or two.
These patients may experience very little pain, numbness or inflammation. Other hand surgeries, like repairing damaged or severed tendons, may require months for maximum recovery, which must occur gradually.
Sensitive Hands Require Delicate Care (During and After Surgery)
Hand surgeries are typically both complicated and delicate, requiring an expert surgical touch and well-honed surgical judgment. Human hands are very sensitive and, after hand surgery, many will have pain from irritated body tissues and nerves, which will of course be controlled with appropriate medications.
Inflammation is also part of the early healing process and may be controlled by propping the hand above the heart. In many cases, patients are encouraged to move fingers almost immediately to enhance circulation, avoid stiffness and start the healing process. Rest and very limited activity are also part of the hand surgery recovery timeline.
In many cases, a splint is required and worn continuously at first. Then, depending upon the type of hand surgery, your surgeon will instruct you to wear the splint only at night or intermittently. Keep in mind that this is general information and may not apply to your particular recovery.
Hand Surgeons Set the Stage for Quick and Complete Hand Surgery Recovery
A top hand surgeon will plan your hand surgery around you, according to your needs. Your surgeon must also have excellent surgical judgment because some decisions must be made during surgery, in response to specific conditions found when your surgeon begins working with the bones, tendons and tissues of your hand.
Your hand surgeon should be a great communicator, explaining exactly what will happen in your hand surgery and giving clear recovery instructions. You must choose a surgeon with whom you feel comfortable, because you will need to ask questions to ensure you understand recovery directions. Working with a skilled, approachable hand surgeon can shorten your hand surgery recovery time.
How Patients Can Shorten Hand Surgery Recovery Time
Patient compliance has a great role during recovery from hand surgery. You can speed your own recovery by carefully following your surgeon’s instructions throughout your hand surgery recovery time. You may also see a hand therapist (physical or occupational therapist).
These appointments must be kept faithfully and instructions followed exactly, including any homework. Exercises taught to you must be done properly and according to the schedule given to you by your surgeon and/or therapist. This sounds like obvious advice, but hand surgery recovery in most cases is gradual. So, after a while, patients may begin to skip their “homework”.
This can lead to longer hand surgery recovery time – and it can even halt your recovery so that you don’t improve as much as possible. Remember, hand surgery is the foundation for your recovery, but aftercare and therapy will complete your recovery. To regain maximum use of your hand, stick with the program.
Hand Surgery Recovery Timeline
Here we’ll outline the basic stages of recovery after hand surgery – but since procedures vary widely, the overview is general. Not all stages may apply to you during your hand surgery recovery time, and each stage might be longer or shorter. Your hand surgeon’s instructions will likely differ from the scenario listed below. Of course, you must follow your surgeon’s specific instructions over these general ones.
Before Hand Surgery
You may want to have pain medicine prescriptions filled beforehand for convenience. You won’t need to take them for at least a few hours after surgery, however. Read through any instruction sheet given to you by your hand doctor and gather anything you can (pillows to prop your hand, etc.) in advance.
You will need a ride to and from surgery and ideally the person driving you will wait for you while you have surgery. You’ll also need a ride to the first post-surgery appointment, at least. You may need to arrange for childcare, someone to run errands or provide help around the house, because any lifting, pulling or pushing is not allowed until your surgeon gives the go-ahead. Your hand may be immobilized for a while, but even if not, don’t lift anything until cleared to do so.
Hand Surgery Day
Hand surgery is typically an outpatient procedure that takes place in a surgery center and requires only sedation, local or regional anesthesia. When surgery is completed, your hand will be bandaged and you may also require a splint to immobilize your wrist, hand, thumb and/or fingers in a bent or straight position. In some cases, you may have a small drain tube in place.
Going Home after Hand Surgery
Your friend or family member will drive you home, no matter how minor your surgery. You must keep your bandage and splint clean and dry. It must be covered in plastic if you shower. (Ask your surgeon if it’s ok to shower and/or check the hand recovery instruction sheet given to you.)
Day 1 after Surgery
You will return to the surgeon’s office next day for bandage removal.
- Your surgeon will check your incision for signs of infection and to make sure it has begun healing properly.
- Your drain tube, if any, will be removed.
- You’ll often be instructed to wiggle your fingers regularly to increase circulation and begin the healing process. (This is not always the case. Don’t do so unless your surgeon tells you to.)
Week 1 and 2
You will have some pain and inflammation, controlled with your pain meds and by propping your hand above your heart. That is, unless your surgery was done with a needle. In that case you may already be back at work. You may have a few strange sensations in the surgery area or slight soreness. For other hand surgeries:
- You will wear a splint 24 hours a day in many cases.
- You must keep the incision and any bandages/splint dry, so shower carefully using plastic over your surgery hand and wrist.
- Any stitches will be removed at some point during this time by your surgeon.
- You will care for your incision as instructed.
- Watch for signs of infection or fever, excess pain, swelling or bleeding. Contact your surgeon if you notice anything at all that concerns you.
Week 3, 4 and 5
You no longer need pain pills in most cases. Your hand and incision may still be tender and you may still have some swelling. You may have a pins and needles feeling in your hand.
- Your splint may be worn only at night.
- You may begin hand and finger exercises you were taught by your doctor and/or may begin seeing a physical therapist.
- Your prescribed exercises and therapy will help your hand become and stay flexible, build muscle strength and enhance dexterity and fine motor movement gradually.
- Remember not to lift, carry or pull anything with the affected hand (even a small thing like a door handle) until given the go-ahead by your therapist or surgeon.
- Don’t work out or do exercises that increase your blood pressure until given permission.
- See your surgeon and therapist as often as they indicate for hand surgery followup.
- Your surgeon will monitor and may help control the development of scar tissue with cortisone injections or other means.
Most patients will have returned to work. You may need to return gradually, with reduced hours or lighter duty until cleared by your hand surgeon to do more. However, even carpal tunnel surgery can keep you out of work this long if you have poor overall health or if your job involves heavy use of your hand. Your surgeon and hand therapist must be your guide. Except for the most involved hand surgeries, you are likely almost back to normal.
You may need to continue follow-up visits with your hand surgeon and/or therapist and home exercises to achieve the maximum improvement possible. In some very complex cases, involving serious damage to the hand, such as flexor tendon damage, a second surgery may be necessary to remove excess scar tissue and perhaps use grafting to reconstruct the tendon.
3 to 6 months
Most hand surgery patients will be reaching maximum improvement or complete normalcy by this point. Anytime, no matter how long after surgery, your hand surgeon should be available to you for questions and followup if needed.
Your Hand Surgery Recovery Time
Contact Cohen/Winters Aesthetic & Reconstructive Surgery in Bergen County to learn how hand surgery might help you. Schedule a consultation with us to learn more abut your hand surgery recovery time.