If you're considering having an operation or your doctor has suggested you may need surgery, this guide is for you.
It will take you through all the steps in the process, from referral to recovery, so you're fully prepared and know what questions to ask at each stage.
Before you start, you'll need to decide which hospital you'd like to be referred to. Our tips on choosing a hospital can help, and you can also compare hospitals based on a range of performance measures, such as infection rates and patient satisfaction.
Once you've chosen your hospital, your doctor will refer you to see a specialist at this hospital.
You can find out more about each stage of the treatment journey by using the links below:
- Seeing a specialist - an initial consultation to discuss your treatment options and agree what's right for you.
- Preparing for surgery - what to do in the days leading up to surgery, and your pre-operative assessment.
- Day of the operation - arriving at hospital, information for visitors, and what happens before you go into theatre.
- After surgery - coming round from the operation and being discharged from hospital.
- Getting back to normal - general advice and typical recovery times.
Janet Collins had both her knees replaced after suffering from severe arthritis. She says they're 100% better than they were before.
"Before they did surgery, I couldn't stand properly at all. If I sat in a chair, I couldn't get out of the chair. I was going into the wheelchair more and more, because of the pain in the knees.
"I could have carried on as I was with the painkillers and just accepted it. Then I would have ended up being lifted about, because the knees would've gone eventually.
"My husband or my family would've had to lift me from chair to bed or whatever. I didn't want that. I wanted new knees to make my legs stronger. So I decided to have them done. I don't regret having them done at all.
"I went into St Richard's Hospital in Chichester. The actual surgery was wonderful. It cleared up, no problems.
"The first knee, which was the right one, was very good, then the other one was fine as well.
"After a few days, the physio would come down, and we'd have to do these exercises. You'll find that each time you do it, it gets easier, until the time you leave hospital. You're getting a nice bend back in the knee.
"But, as they say, no pain no gain. And that's true, isn't it? So this is what I did.
"My husband, Peter, he's marvellous. I wouldn't have any life without him.
"Not enough is said about carers. Our lives without them would be terrible.
"He puts the washing out. He does everything. Hoovers, cleans, cooks – the lot. Without him, my life would be terrible. I need my legs as much as I need my brain, and I feel, with my new knees, that they're not damaged any more.
"If I'm in a chair and I want to get up and I haven't got anything near me, I now know my legs aren't going to go, because my knees have made my legs stronger.
"I would say to anybody who's having a knee done, that if you persevere with your physio you'll regain full use in them knees.
"Definitely do your physio, do your exercises, and you won't look back. You'll go forward all the time. You've got new knees. Use them. Make use of them. You've got to move, got to bend them, and you'll be fine.
"Since having my knees done, I can now walk beside Peter. Not for long, but it's enough, and I have gained that bit of respect back, that I can walk for a few steps.
"We can't hold hands because I have to walk with my crutches, but I'm thankful for what we can do. You've got to be thankful for what you get out of this life.
"My two new knees have made a great difference to my mobility. I can now do three or four steps beside my husband."
The day of the operation
Your admission letter from the hospital will tell you the date and time of your operation and what time you need to arrive.
It should also tell you which ward or department you're going to be in, a contact number for your hospital or ward and the consultant who will be taking care of you.
When you arrive, you'll be welcomed by a member of staff, who will explain the processes to you and give you an identity bracelet to wear during your stay in hospital.
During your time in hospital, you may be asked the same questions by several people. This is routine, and ensures that correct information about you is checked and available at each stage of treatment.
Take any medicines your doctor asked you to take before surgery. However, if you normally take tablets or insulin for diabetes, make sure you discuss this with your specialist as soon as possible before your operation.
You'll be asked whether you're allergic to any medication or whether any relatives have ever had any problems with an anaesthetic, so suitable precautions can be taken.
Company and visitors
Family or friends can usually stay with you until you leave for the operating theatre, at which point they can wait for you in the waiting room.
Check your hospital's policy on visiting times, and read more about visiting someone in hospital.
Just before the operation
You’ll be asked to change into a hospital gown, and the details of the operation will be explained. You'll then be asked to sign a consent form giving your permission for surgery to go ahead. This form indicates you know what the surgery is for, and you understand the risks, benefits and alternative treatments.
For some operations, a needle connected to a drip will be injected into your hand, allowing fluids, nourishment and medicine to be given while you're under anaesthetic.
You will be given an anaesthetic so you won’t feel any pain during the operation.
A general anaesthetic will be needed for a major operation, which means you'll be asleep throughout the whole operation. It will be given to you via an injection or gas, which you breathe through a mask.
There's no need to be anxious about having a general anaesthetic: the anaesthetist will be by your side the whole time you are asleep, carefully monitoring you, and will be there when you wake up.
If you don't need to be put to sleep, you'll be given a regional anaesthetic. This means you’ll be conscious throughout, but you won't feel any pain. It may be a local anaesthetic, where a small area is numbed, or an epidural, which reduces sensation in the upper or lower areas of your body.
What happens next?
Read about what happens after surgery for information on recovering from an operation in hospital and going home.
After surgery you’ll be moved to the recovery room where you’ll be told how the operation went.
You may feel hazy or groggy as you come round from the anaesthetic. A nurse will give you oxygen (through tubes or a mask) to help you feel better.
It's common to feel sick or vomit after you've been given anaesthesia. Your nurse may offer you medicine to help relieve this discomfort. You may also have a sore throat and dry mouth.
Your blood pressure will be taken via an automatic cuff that squeezes tightly at regular times. Your temperature will also be taken.
The outcome of your operation
It's important to find out how well your operation went. Here are some questions you may want to ask:
- Was the operation as successful as expected?
- What effect has the operation had on my condition?
- How will I expect to feel when I get home?
- How long will it be before I'm back to normal?
Tell your nurse as soon as you start to feel any pain so they can give you painkilling medication as soon as possible to stop it getting worse (the medication can take 20 minutes to start working).
Avoiding blood clots
The sooner you start to move around, the better. Lying in bed for too long can cause some of your blood to pool in your legs. This puts you at risk of a blood clot.
If possible, doing some leg exercises can help prevent a blood clot. These may be as simple as flexing your knee or ankle and rotating your foot.
You may be given special support stockings to wear after surgery to help your blood circulation. Your nurse or doctor will explain how you should use these. Some people are given an injection to thin the blood slightly to help reduce the risk of clots.
Research shows the earlier you get out of bed and start walking, eating and drinking after your operation, the better.
Your hospital may offer an enhanced recovery programme if you've had major surgery. This rehabilitation programme aims to get you back to full health quickly, which means you could go home sooner than traditionally expected.
See enhanced recovery for more information.
Plan for your days following surgery
It's important to arrange for appropriate care following your operation. For elderly people, it's important to arrange for suitable equipment and care. You shouldn't be afraid to ask for things that may help you, such as a wheelchair or walking frame.
Before you leave hospital you may (depending on the type of operation you had) have an appointment with a physiotherapist, who will be able to advise you about any exercises you need to carry out.
You'll also be given advice about how to care for your wound, a dose of painkillers, and any equipment you may require, such as dressings, bandages, crutches and splints.
Each hospital will have its own policy and arrangements for discharging patients. Your discharge will be affected by:
- how quickly your health improves while you're in hospital
- what support you'll need after you return home
Read more about leaving hospital.
You won’t be able to drive yourself home after surgery, instead you could ask someone to pick you up or take you home in a taxi. It's a good idea to have an adult available to help you for at least 24 hours after surgery.
What happens next?
See getting back to normal for information and advice about recovering from an operation at home.
Seeing a specialist
Your first appointment will be with a consultant or another member of the surgical team. You can bring someone with you to this appointment.
At this stage, it is not guaranteed that surgery will be right for you. Only the consultant can make this decision, after carrying out tests, making a careful assessment and weighing up all the treatment options available to you.
You may want to ask your specialist the following questions:
- What are the different types of treatment for my condition?
- What are the benefits, side effects and risks of each of these treatments?
- Why are you recommending I have this operation?
- Are other types of non-surgical treatment possible for my condition?
If an operation is necessary, this will be your chance to find out what the operation involves, why it's needed, and whether it's suitable for you. Below are some questions you may want to ask:
- Who will perform the operation? What qualifications and experience do they have?
- What exactly does the operation involve, and how long will it take?
- What type of anaesthetic will I need?
- How long is the waiting list for this operation?
- How will I know if the operation is a success?
Also, don't be afraid to ask practical questions, such as:
- Will I need stitches and will there be scarring?
- How long before the operation will I need to stop eating and drinking?
- How long will I need to stay in hospital?
- How long will it take me to recover and get back to normal?
- Will I need time off work and, if so, for how long?
Make sure you discuss any concerns with the consultant.
You may wish to ask if there is any written information about the operation or procedure you can take away with you.
At the end of the session, your consultant may book your operation or ask you to come back for a further appointment. They may take your informed consent at this stage, which indicates you know what the surgery is for and understand the risks and benefits.
Once booked, you should receive a letter with details of your operation, asking you to confirm you are happy with the proposed date and time.
What happens next?
See preparing for surgery for information and advice about getting ready for your operation.
Watch a video of Sarah talk about her experience of having a bone marrow transplant or view other real stories of organ transplants below.
- Liver transplant - Lorna's story. Lorna had a liver transplant in 2009. In this video, she shares her experience of having to wait for the right donor.
- Double lung transplant - Jon's story. Jon was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis as a baby and put on a lung transplant list aged 11. Find out about life before, during and after his transplant.
- Kidney transplant - Tony's story. Tony talks about his recovery from a kidney transplant and his goal of climbing Mount Everest.
- Double transplant - Ivy's story. Find out how a double kidney and pancreas transplant has transformed former diabetic Ivy's life.
Preparing for surgery
In the days leading up to your surgery, you'll need to make travel arrangements for getting to and from the hospital and think about what to pack.
Make sure you give your family and friends plenty of notice about your operation, so they can take time off work to be with you if necessary.
Check your hospital's policy on visiting times and let your family and friends know.
At some hospitals you'll be asked to attend a pre-operative assessment, which may be an appointment with a nurse or doctor, a telephone assessment or an email assessment. You'll be asked questions about your health, your medical history and your home circumstances.
If the assessment involves a visit to the hospital, some tests may be carried out, including MRSA screening and blood tests.
This assessment will usually happen one or more days before your operation.
Make sure you know the results of any previous tests, as well as all the medications, vitamins and herbal supplements you take.
You'll be given clear information on:
- whether you need to stop eating and drinking in the hours before your operation (see below)
- whether you should stop taking your usual medications before going into hospital
- what to bring with you into hospital
- whether you'll need to stay in hospital overnight and, if so, for how long
Importance of fasting
If your doctor has instructed you to fast before the operation, it's really important that you don't eat or drink anything - this includes light snacks, sweets and water. You need an empty stomach during surgery so you don’t vomit while you are under anaesthetic.
If you take insulin because of diabetes you will still need to avoid eating and drinking before surgery, but make sure your medical team is aware of your condition so appropriate precautions can be taken.
You'll need to remove all make-up and nail polish before your operation as the doctors will need to see your skin and nails to make sure your blood circulation is healthy.
This can also help reduce your chances of unwanted bacteria being brought into the hospital.
Getting to and from hospital
Think about how you will get to the hospital and back again. You probably won't be well enough to drive, so you may want to arrange transport or ask a friend or relative to help. In some cases, the hospital may be able to arrange transport home for you.
Some hospitals will charge for parking.
Cancelling and rearranging
If you're unable to attend your hospital appointment or you don't feel well enough to have your operation, let the hospital know as soon as possible. Your admission will be rearranged for another day.
What happens next?
Read about what happens on the day of the operation for information on what to expect when you are admitted to hospital for surgery.
Builder Norman Lane had a double hip replacement when his osteoarthritis got so painful that he couldn't turn over in bed. He thought he'd never be able to run again, but now he runs more than 40 miles a week.
"I've always played football. I was very much a sporting person throughout my early years.
"But when I got to 35, 40 years old, that sort of time, I found that my hips became very stiff. My joints were very painful.
"I went to a surgeon and found, devastatingly, that I was suffering from arthritis in both hips. The symptoms were generally just sharp, shooting pains down both legs, in the joints; a lot of aching, especially on strenuous exercises.
"I found that I couldn't do the things at football that I wanted to, so I gave up football at the age of 41, and took up running instead.
"My surgeon kept a watch on things. When I was nearly 55 years old, he decided that the time was right to have my hips replaced.
"My biggest fear was that I would feel that I wasn't a whole person. It really was scary to have big chunks of metal in me, and that I wouldn't be myself.
"The surgeon reassured me that it would be OK. I had the operation on the promise that he would do both hips together if my body could withstand it. He subsequently did so, and very successfully.
"The operation took a little bit longer than we thought. It was just over eight hours, but it wasn't a problem. It was all under control.
"I came out of the operation. I have to say, I was in tremendous pain. I expected that, but the next day they got me out of bed. I didn't want to. Because they got me out of bed, I made them take me to the end of the bed and back, just to say I'd made some progress.
"But it was all systems go after that. The next day, they showed me the physio room, which was just outside our ward. I was in the hospital for just a week.
"The nurses were great. No problems, no complaints.
"It took me maybe 12 months to get over everything fully. I felt a bit tender in places, but it was a gradual recovery.
"I have a negative of the X-ray of my hip replacements. If anyone doubts me, or if I have a bad run, I pick up my X-ray and I stand up and look.
"I'm not a cripple, but that's me, and those joints are absolutely brilliant. I've always set goals all my life. Then I started running again. I had the idea of doing a run to say thank you to the National Health Service. So I set about raising £10,000, on a run from John o'Groats to Land's End.
"Beforehand, Mr McKinnon gave me another X-ray to check that the hips were OK. There was no sign of wear.
"We did the run – more than 40 miles a day. It was established as a world record, because no one had done it before, which is a bit easier. We finished it in 28 days and got a lot of publicity for the arthritis cause. We raised a lot of money.
"I had another X-ray a month or so after. Dr McKinnon, the surgeon, couldn't believe that there was absolutely no sign of any wear or tear. He said that it had changed his way of thinking. So he now tells people to go out and exercise and use their joints.'
Aortic valve operation
Mike Tennant explains what happened after he was told he needed his aortic valve repaired, and what life has been like since the operation.
"I went to see my local doctor and asked him to give me a complete overhaul. He did all the ordinary examinations – cholesterol, blood and all that sort of thing. Then he sent me for ECGs.
"Then I met Mr West, Nicholas West, the consultant. He listened to my heart and said, 'Come and see me in six months.'
"One of my hobbies is classic cars. Last August we went to a car rally in Le Mans. The hotel lift wasn't working, so my two friends and I had to walk up two flights of stairs. I got to the top of the second flight and sat with my suitcase, puffing like an old steam train. My friends were frightened.
"Five minutes later, I was alright and able to go to the rally. But as I walked to the top of the grandstands, which must have been a good 150 steps, I had to stop several times along the way.
"The day after I got back home, I had my appointment with Mr West. That's when he sent me to have the angiogram. When we had the angiogram, the heart valves (the four in the heart) were perfectly alright, but the aorta valve, the big one, was calcifying up and getting stiffer and stiffer.
"It's like a flutter valve – it opens one way and lets the blood through, then shuts again, stopping it from flowing backwards.
"When I was first told to have the aortic replacement, I had a choice of two valves: a mechanical one, or one which I understand is a pig's valve. I decided on a metal one.
"The doctor said I then had to take warfarin every day for the rest of my life. I didn't fancy that, so I opted for the other valve. If I didn't have it done, I suppose I could die at any time. There's a two per cent chance of death during the operation. But in my mind, two per cent out of a hundred isn't bad.
"So I decided to have it done. I came round after the operation and saw the medical team all standing there. The doctor said he didn't understand how I had been getting around as well as I was. It was one of the worst cases he'd seen.
"Next morning I walked up two flights of stairs with the physiotherapist. The rest of the time, I sat on the bed or wandered about the ward without any trouble at all. Four days later I was back home.
"I didn't go out much for the first couple of days, but then I'd walk up the hill to look at the horses and wander back down. Gradually, I got farther and farther afield each day, and I can walk anywhere now.
"I still puff and blow, but I keep going now, whereas before I'd puff and blow and stop. Now it's vastly different.
"After the operation, I wasn't allowed to drive for six weeks, but after six weeks I could drive with no trouble at all.
"I would say go ahead and have the operation. I wouldn't hesitate at all. It'll make you feel totally different.
"You can't really explain it, because until you've had it yourself, you suddenly realise how much you've slowed down. So, yeah, definitely go ahead.
"If somebody says have the operation, get it done as quick as you can. Don't hang around and wait. Just go in there and get it done."
Getting back to normal
Don't be surprised if you feel very tired when you get home, especially if you've had a major operation or a general anaesthetic.
It's important to move around as soon as possible after surgery and follow your doctor's advice on getting active again. This will encourage your blood to flow and your wounds to heal, and will build up strength in your muscles. Read about walking for health.
Generally, try to get back into your regular routine as soon as possible. Use this as an opportunity to make a fresh start: to eat more healthily, start exercising to stay in shape, and stop smoking if you smoke.
If you have a dressing on the area operated on, follow the instructions your nurse gave you to care for your wound at home.
Your doctor will have given you an idea of how long it will take to get back to normal.
As a rough guide, it'll take you about a week to recover from a simple operation such as gallbladder removal, and a few months to recover from a major operation such as a hip replacement.
For information on recovery specific to a procedure, click on the links below or look up your procedure in the A-Z index.
- Hip replacement
- Knee replacement
- Varicose vein surgery
- Fibroids surgery
- Diverticulitis surgery
- Cataract surgery
- Aortic aneurysm repair
- Gallbladder removal
If you want to let others know about the care you received, you can find your hospital and leave a review or rating.
Alec Keep, a chauffeur from Bedfordshire, had a heart bypass in Papworth Hospital, after having two heart attacks.
"I had a pain in my chest. I nearly sat down and thought, 'It will go soon'. Then I remembered the advert with the guy with the belt around his chest, so I rang for an ambulance.
"The mobile paramedic was here in about four or five minutes, then the ambulance came. They took me to hospital, but they had to stop on the way and get my heart going again because it had stopped pumping.
"When I got into hospital, they had a tough job saving me, but they pulled me through.
"I knew the basics of what they were going to do because I had seen it on a leaflet. But I didn't want anybody to talk to me about it. It was just my way of handling the situation.
"When I went in to have my operation, I was joking with the porters. The only time I had any problems was when I phoned my wife Sheena at lunch time before my operation in the afternoon. I shouldn't have done. We both cried.
"But, apart from that, I was fine, and I've been fine since. I was only in hospital for seven days, then I came home.
"It's been very, very good. I've recovered exceptionally well. I've done exactly what they've told me. Sheena is my matron and makes sure that I don't do anything wrong.
"I can do my exercises at home. I've got a book to put all my pace and everything in, including how I feel. That'll go on for 12 weeks. Then I'll go back to Papworth, and they'll tell me what a good boy I am!
"I've been very surprised, all the way through, how quickly I recovered. I was driving in four weeks. Friends would say, 'You're doing too much' or 'Oh, you can't do that'. Everybody encourages you to get moving, but not to overdo it.
"Anybody who has a pain in their chest should phone for an ambulance. I've got a problem with a hiatus hernia, and I know I have pains, but this was different.
"Just phone for an ambulance, and sort it out. If it isn't a heart attack, everybody at the hospital, the paramedics, the doctors and the nurses, will be pleased that it isn't. But if it is, they're there to help you."