Updated for 2018
The body reacts to any injury with a series of chemical signals that direct exactly how the response to the injury will take place. Although each injury is unique, there are some consistent processes that happen with each injury, whether that injury is a bruise, a sprained ankle or plastic surgery. One of the most common healing responses that we see after cosmetic surgery is swelling.
Rates of Swelling
Swelling will begin shortly after plastic surgery. Typically, post-operative swelling will increase fairly rapidly for the first 4 days and usually peaks about day 5 . Then there is a slow decrease in swelling that may continue on for several weeks or even months.
Usually by about 6 to 8 weeks after plastic surgery, the swelling has decreased by about 80 percent. During these first 6 to 8 weeks, the rate at which the swelling decreases is relatively fast. After this time, the rate of decrease in the swelling slows down significantly so that the remaining 20 percent of swelling may slowly decrease over the next several months.
What You Can Do to Decrease Swelling
Decreasing the amount of swelling can help decrease physical discomfort as well as improve recovery time. There are several things that can be done to decrease the amount of swelling after plastic surgery:
Let Gravity Help You
Keep the area that has been operated on as elevated as practical. If you’ve had facial surgery, don’t bend over in the first few days and sleep propped up or in a recliner the first several nights. If you’ve had surgery on your arms or legs (such as liposuction), keep them elevated so that the natural tendency of any swelling is to run downhill toward your body.
Use Ice to Minimize Swelling
Icing is extremely useful in the first 5 days but has also shown to be helpful even for several weeks. Generally icing for 20 minutes on then resting for 20 minutes should be sufficient. Do this throughout the day and night as much as practical. Do not put frozen items directly on the skin as it can cause frostbite and actually damage the skin. This is especially true for areas where the sensation may be decreased.
Rest the Area of Surgery
If you’ve had surgery, do not use or move that part of your body more than necessary during the initial swelling phase. The more movement there is, the more swelling. There are a few exceptions to this, so be sure to check with your surgeon for his or her recommendations.
Compression Garments May Help
In some areas of the body and depending upon what type of surgery was performed, compression garments can limit the amount of swelling. Although compression garments won’t stop all of the swelling, they can decrease the maximum amount of swelling that takes place.
Wearing a compression garment can be especially helpful for liposuction procedures where their use can also decrease the amount of bruising.
We commonly use compression garments for body contouring such as liposuction, tummy tucks and some breast surgery. The garments or any compression device used should only provide firm pressure (similar to support stockings). The garments should never be painful nor restrict blood flow. If there are any concerns about the garment being too tight, loosen it and contact your surgeon.
Ask Your Surgeon about Steroids
Steroids such as prednisone or decadron may be given at the time of surgery to limit the amount of swelling that takes place. The recommendation to take steroids after surgery should be made by your plastic surgeon based on the nature of the surgery, medical conditions of the patient and potential risks.
Some Herbal Supplements May Help
Supplements such as arnica montana are touted to be useful to decrease post-operative swelling and bruising. Although many people, including some surgeons, believe in the value of this and some other similar supplements, true scientific data is lacking. If you are interested in herbal supplements, be sure to discuss this in detail with your surgeon. Some supplements have been shown to prolong bleeding and can increase the risk of surgery.