How long does it take to recover from breast reconstruction?
Implant-based reconstruction is the simplest and least painful method with the shortest recovery time. Typically, most women are able to do most routine activities within two to three weeks. Flap-based procedures, which require surgery in two areas, are more demanding and the recovery time varies, depending on which flap procedure was performed.
Your surgeon will let you know how long it will be before you can return to your normal level of activity and work. Your surgeon will also give you and your caregiver detailed instructions about your postoperative care after your surgery, including information about:
- Drains, if they have been placed
- Typical symptoms you will experience
- Potential signs of complications
It is vital that you follow all the patient care instructions your surgeon provides. It is also important to know that the amount of time it takes for recovery varies greatly among individuals.
See options for short-term recovery locations in aftercare & recovery.
What can I expect during my breast reconstruction recovery?
Your surgeon will prepare you for the experience, but here are a few things you can expect:
- You may wake up from surgery feeling groggy and very tired.
- When the anesthesia wears off, you may have some pain, redness, and swelling. Make sure you ask for pain-relieving medicines if you need them. In general, if your pain is well controlled, you'll recover more quickly. If the pain is extreme or long-lasting, contact your surgeon.
- You may have compression sleeves on your legs to help with circulation.
- You may have drains coming out of your underarms to assist in healing (and from your stomach if you had an autologous reconstruction using tissue from your abdominal area).
- Depending on the type of reconstruction you have, you may spend significant time in bed or a chair during the first few days. Your surgeon will encourage you to walk at least three or four times a day to stimulate the circulation in your legs.
- You may be too tired to shower during the first week, but if your surgeon gives you permission and you feel up to it, you can shower. You may need someone to help you. You will need to pin all of your drains to a Velcro drain belt or you may be given something in the hospital such as a gauze necklace to support the drains around your neck. It may help if you have a shower stool, so you can sit down in the shower. After your surgeon removes your drain, it will be much easier to shower.
- Early in your recovery, you will most likely see your surgeon weekly until the drain removal. You cannot rush the drain removal. As bothersome as they may be, they are essential to proper wound healing. Generally, once a drain produces less than twenty to thirty milliliters in a twenty-four--hour period, your surgeon will remove it. In most patients, drain removal does not hurt.
- At first, your new breasts may be larger due to swelling, which can happen after surgery. As the swelling subsides, your breasts assume the shape you desired over a few weeks or months.
- Your surgeon will instruct you to do exercises at home to help your recovery. At first you may have some discomfort when you move your arms, but it is important to continue to use your arms and do the exercises suggested.
- How soon you can return to work depends on the type of work you do and your surgery. If your job doesn't involve heavy manual work, you may be able to go back to work sooner but remember, you're likely to feel more tired than usual.
- In general, you can resume driving once you are no longer taking any pain medications and can use the gearshift and parking brake. You must be able to do an emergency stop or move the steering wheel suddenly if necessary. Driving while taking pain medications is illegal in most states.
- Your wounds may feel itchy as they heal, but you must not scratch them. The itching will lessen as the wounds heal. It usually takes about six weeks for the wounds to heal enough that the itching subsides. Remember that scars go through phases, and the inflammatory phase of healing may last months (in this phase the incisions appear pink, flushed, and are usually slightly raised or firm). Your scars will take a year to fully mature, so be patient and follow the advice of your surgeon in regard to treatments to help minimize your scar.
If you have an autologous flap breast reconstruction:
- Surgeries involving muscle flaps usually require a hospital stay and may involve restriction of your activities. After a TRAM flap surgery, you are not allowed to strain or lift for six weeks.
- Soon after surgery, your surgeon will ask you to move your arms, but not forcefully. Nurses will help you in and out of bed. Most expander/implant reconstruction surgeries are outpatient procedures. You should walk the day of your surgery to aid circulation and decrease the risk of clots forming in your legs.
- The length of your hospital stay will depend on your general health, the type of operation you have, and how your recovery progresses. You may spend anywhere from one to six nights in the hospital. Flap procedures require a stay of two to six nights, depending on the type of flap procedures and the blood supply to that flap.
- Your surgeon will most likely cover your incisions with bandages following flap reconstruction surgery but may simply close with skin glue or tape following implant reconstruction.
- Your surgeon may recommend an elastic bandage or a soft bra to minimize swelling and support the reconstructed breast(s).
- You may have a catheter in your bladder, which your surgeon will remove after surgery.
- The area from which tissue was taken from to form your new breast(s) may also be sore.
- It may be difficult for you to get out of bed alone at first.
- Most patients can walk without assistance by the second or third day after a flap reconstruction.
- Make sure you are clear about what is expected of you before you leave the hospital or surgical center. You should have a loved one or patient advocate with you to help you.
If you have breast reconstruction with implants:
- Your armpit region may be a little sore following surgery, but it is important to move your arms and maintain the range of motion in your shoulders. Your surgeon will tell you about certain exercises that can help.
- Your surgeon will encourage you to get out of bed with assistance; early ambulation is very important to prevent blood clots in your legs.
- You will be able to use the bathroom by yourself but may need assistance during the first week following certain types of reconstructive procedures.