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A Guide to Post-Surgery Mental Recovery in Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

Maybe you’re a baseball pitcher who needs Tommy John surgery, a soccer player with an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear or a basketball player with frequent shoulder dislocations. When you need surgery to treat a sports injury, it can feel like a setback. 

You’re understandably focused on your physical recovery — after all, you want to get back to your preinjury performance as quickly as possible. But the healing process takes time.

Orthopedic and sports medicine surgeries can have an impact on your mental health, too. And your mental well-being and physical health are closely tied together. Don’t overlook the mental aspects of your recovery — it’s an essential part of the healing process. 

During your journey through surgery and recovery, it’s important to acknowledge and validate the feelings and emotions you may experience, which can include: 

We spoke with Sierra Dimberg, PhD, a sports psychologist with Banner – University Medicine, to learn more about the mental struggles of recovery from surgery.

“An injury or surgery can be a stressor for a lot of people. You may lose coping skills (like exercise), struggle with feeling disconnected from others (like teammates) and lose your identity or confidence,” Dr. Dimberg said.

Start by preparing before surgery. “Think of something new you’d like to try to get excited about and find joy or pleasure.” said Dr. Dimberg. “If you aren’t used to being less active, is there something you’ve been interested in learning that you can try?”

Here are some other steps you can take to improve your mental well-being during recovery.

Be sure your expectations are realistic

After surgery, you’re probably anxious to recover as quickly as possible. If your surgeon shares timeframes, such as six to eight weeks before you’re able to do a certain activity, your brain probably latches on to the shortest possible time.

But everyone’s recovery from surgery is different. Your overall health, other conditions and how well you can follow your care plan may impact the speed of your recovery. You can’t compare your healing process to anyone else’s. You need to be patient and resilient and try to cultivate a positive mindset.

Listen to your care team and follow recovery programs and protocols. “This will ensure a smoother recovery with fewer setbacks, which can help maintain your overall health, including mental health,” Dr. Dimberg said.

Don’t compare your healing process to your younger self, either. Natural aging processes can change your body’s ability to heal. Don’t expect, for example, recovery from ACL surgery to proceed at the same pace if you’re in your 40s as it did when you were in your 20s.

“If you’re worried about how you’ll handle surgery or the recovery, talk to your provider about your concerns. It is important to have a realistic understanding of the recovery journey,” Dr. Dimberg said. 

Ask your provider what factors can help speed or slow your recovery. That way, you can take steps to get back on the field or court as quickly as possible.

Focus on progress and celebrate achievements

You’ll want to get back to the ability level you had before you needed surgery, so it can be tough to focus on smaller improvements you make along the way. But it’s important to celebrate progress. Every step brings you closer to recovery.

Acknowledging the milestones you achieve during your recovery can give you a sense of accomplishment, support a positive mindset, motivate you and build resilience. Celebrating achievements makes your progress more visible, boosts your morale and keeps you committed to your recovery. 

Work with your provider to set realistic goals. You may want to regain a certain range of motion, reduce pain or accomplish daily tasks. Your provider can help you assess your progress toward these goals.

Build a support system 

A network of health care providers, family and friends is a key part of your mental recovery after sports surgery. Here’s how they can help:

  • Your health care team: Communicate closely with your providers so you get the guidance and support you need as you heal. Share your progress, concerns and any changes in your symptoms. Be open about your feelings.
  • Your loved ones: Lean on your family and friends for emotional support. Talk to them about your experiences, concerns and achievements. “Remain connected with others whether it’s via text, phone, video or having people come chill with you,” Dr. Dimberg said.
  • Support groups: Connect with others who are facing similar challenges in online or in-person support groups. In these groups, you can be a part of a community where members understand each others’ challenges and successes. You can get insights, tips and support. Talk to your provider about local options or search online for support groups centered around your type of surgery. 

Follow a routine that supports your emotional health

After surgery, your daily schedule may be upended. Creating a new routine that balances activity and rest may help you feel in control and support your mental well-being.

Rest is important for your healing process. But physical activity helps prevent stiffness and keeps you more mobile. Your health care provider can guide you on what types of physical activity are safe and how much you should do.

To support your emotional health, include activities that bring joy and relaxation into your daily schedule. You may want to focus on hobbies or self-care or spend time with loved ones. These activities can help your days feel more normal and balanced while you’re recovering.

“Talk to your doctor or physical therapist about what you might be able to do during recovery. Maybe this is a time to pursue an interest outside of sports. Is there something you’ve been curious about or wanted to try or learn more about? This could be a perfect time to focus on mental skills that can help your sport when you are physically able to play again,” Dr. Dimberg said. 

“A lot of people in recovery may feel hopeless and helpless. They can’t see the light at the end of the recovery tunnel and get stuck in a spiral of feeling like the recovery will go on forever. People also think they can’t do anything since they can’t do whatever it is they previously enjoyed, but this is a chance to get creative and try something new,” she said.

To manage stress and promote well-being, build in time for mindfulness exercises, relaxation techniques, deep breathing or meditation. These strategies can help you foster a positive outlook, reduce anxiety and build resilience.

“Resist catastrophizing by not allowing thoughts to run rampant, reframing unproductive thoughts and building a resilient growth mindset by thinking of the process and being patient,” Dr. Dimberg said.

Gradually add physical activity

You’ll want to strike a balance between adding activity and respecting your body’s healing process. Your health care team can let you know what you can do safely and when. 

At first, you may need to choose gentle activities like walking or gardening. As you heal and get stronger, you’ll be able to add in more energetic activities that support your physical and mental health.

When to connect with an expert

Sometimes, you may need professional help to face the mental health challenges of recovering from orthopedic surgery. If you have feelings of anxiety, depression or overwhelming stress,  signs such as changes in mood, sleep or appetite, or feelings of hopelessness, a counselor or therapist can help.

In counseling, you can express your concerns and fears. A mental health provider can help you cope, manage stress and build resilience. Reaching out for mental health care is a sign of strength and self-awareness.

The bottom line

It can be challenging to recover mentally from sports surgery, especially when you want to get back in the game as quickly as possible. Setting realistic expectations, focusing on progress, celebrating achievements, building a support system and following a routine can help keep you emotionally healthy during your recovery.

A Banner Health provider can give you more tips on how to stay mentally strong when you’re recovering from orthopedic surgery. Reach out to connect with an expert

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