Why Can't I Eat Before Surgery?

Whenever people are told by their doctors that they have to fast before surgery, they often ask, “Why can’t I eat before surgery?” Generally speaking, your physician wants your stomach to be empty for a specific period of time to prevent any unnecessary medical complications. You’d better follow your doctor’s instructions of fasting before a surgery.

Why Can't I Eat Before Surgery?

An appropriate fasting period prior to surgery using anesthesia is essential for a person’s safety. Prior to the scheduled surgery, people are usually recommended to eat or drink nothing for at least 6 hours, and preferably 8 to 12 hours. Some reasons for fasting include:

  • For gastrointestinal surgery: If the surgery involves the gastrointestinal track, the stomach has to be as empty as possible before surgery to prevent leakage into the abdominal cavity. Sometimes bowel preparation will be done before the surgery. The surgery may be cancelled if you don’t follow the fasting rules.
  • For other surgeries using anesthesia: After an anesthesia, food in your stomach may be inhaled into your lungs during the surgery, which can cause a lung infection and lead to aspiration pneumonia. Eating shortly before elective surgery may also lead to postoperative nausea and vomiting. Vomiting after surgery can be very painful, because the incision and your throat can already be sore from the procedure itself. Fasting can help prevent these dangerous consequences from happening. 
  • Note: Do not be tempted into consuming a heavy meal before you begin fasting because it takes longer to digest. Choose a light meal such as soup and salad as a final meal before surgery.

Preparing for Surgery

Now you know the answer to "why can't I eat before surgery?", it's also important to prepare for a surgery. Here are some suggestions for you:

1. Take Care of Your Medications

During one of your preoperative visits, carry an up-to-date list of all your medications along with the dosage, and share the list with your surgeon and anesthesiologist. Therefore your surgeon can give you instructions. And it’s important to safely manage anticoagulants, including:

  • Ibuprofen, such as advil, or motrin
  • Aspirins
  • Naproxen (Aleve)

Avoid taking any supplemental vitamins, or minerals before surgery unless they have be approved by your surgeon.

2. Wash Yourself

Feel free to bathe or shower before the surgery. If your healthcare provider has given you a specially medicated soap, be sure to follow the instructions to use it. If you didn't receive a medicated soap, use an antibacterial soap purchased from your local pharmacy. Remember to scrub your fingernails thoroughly, and remove any nail polish, jewelry and makeup.

3. Report Unusual Symptoms

Only knowing "why can't I eat before surgery" is not enough, you should also pay attention to your body's condition before surgery. If you’re not feeling well, call your doctor's office immediately. Symptoms the surgeon needs to know include:

  • Any new skin infections or skin rashes such as a herpes outbreak
  • Cold or flu-like symptoms
  • Cough
  • Fever
  • Stomach viruses
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath

4. Do Aerobic Exercises

Aerobic exercises such as jogging, bicycling or swimming can improve your lung function. You can also practice deep breathing to improve lung capacity. After anesthesia, the tiny air sacs in your lungs called alveoli may collapse and cause a condition called atelectasis. Aerobic exercises and deep breathing help expand the alveoli and prevent atelectasis.

5. Improve Your Nutritional Status

Improving your nutritional status helps your body heal faster after a surgery. Your surgeon can assess your nutritional status by testing the level of a protein called albumin in your blood. Low levels of albumin can result in worse outcomes for patients undergoing surgery. Attention to nutrition is even more important for patients with diabetes, because high blood glucose levels are toxic to cells and can disrupt normal wound healing.

6. Avoid Smoking

The smoke from cigarettes causes poor wound healing because nicotine can make the blood vessels constrict, decreasing blood supply to the cells of the wound. Besides, nicotine also contains toxins that impede wound healing. If you can’t quit, at least avoid smoking during the healing process to help your wounds heal faster.

7. Take Necessary Items with You

Doctors may explain the question of "why can't I eat before surgery", but they are too busy to tell you what you should take before going to the hospital. Taking necessary items with you can help make you more comfortable. Here are some recommended items for you:

Clothing items:

  • A lightweight bath robe
  • Sweatpants or shorts
  • A pullover shirt
  • Flat shoes with non-slip soles
  • Clothes to change when you leave the hospital

Personal care items:

  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant
  • An electric razor if you are a man
  • Eyeglasses
  • Sanitary napkins
  • Liquid soap

Other items:

  • A small amount of cash
  • Crutches, cane
  • Reading material such as magazines
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