Whether it's a knee or hip replacement, tumor removal or anything in between, one process always happens once the surgery is complete: a doctor cleans and closes the incisions they've made. Once that incision is made, your body’s healing process starts.
Our bodies are designed to heal any skin and tissue damage that comes our way, if we have the right tools to make it happen. To ensure that your incision heals properly, you'll want to take a closer look not only at appropriate cleaning and care, but also your nutrition.
Good nutrition makes the healing process possible, explained Jeff Nelson, PhD, senior research scientist at Abbott specializing in wound healing, and prioritizing certain amino acids, vitamins and minerals in your diet are needed for recovery. But how does this work? And what happens to our bodies during surgery recovery?
We sat down with Nelson to learn the answers to these questions, as well as how getting the right nutrition can aid incision healing.
The wounds we sustain after a surgery or an injury that breaks the skin are classified as acute wounds, Nelson explained. A burn is also considered an acute wound.
Chronic wounds, alternatively, are those that don’t show improved healing by approximately 30 days, such as pressure injuries or foot ulcers stemming from issues including immobility and diabetes. Often older adults in long-term care facilities experience pressure injuries, also known as bed sores. Chronic wounds can lead to further complications and require additional care.
Nelson shares the perfect analogy for what happens when wounds start to heal: "I think of it as a house on fire."
First, as you come out of surgery, the inflammation stage starts. Specialized cells move to the incision site, working to stop the bleeding and mitigate excessive cell damage — just like firefighters rushing to a burning building to quench its flames.
Cell proliferation starts about a week later. Here, your body begins "clearing out the rubble," as he explains, and sending materials like collagen to prep the incision site for rebuilding. Around the two-week mark, wounds start to fill in with new tissue so that ultimately the wound can close and new skin can form.
It usually takes about a month for acute wounds to close up, and up to a year for the complete recovery depending on the type and extent of the wound.
How quickly and efficiently your body recovers after surgery depends on several factors, from the type and size of incision to your overall health and nutrition status. In general, the larger the wound, the longer the recovery process. And if surgery was performed in the context of a significant tissue injury, such as with burns, car accidents or falls, the healing process may also be longer, explained Nelson.
"One of the misconceptions with wound healing is that recovery or healing is going to happen as swiftly as it did when you were younger.”
Jeff Nelson, PhD, senior research scientist, Abbott
Age is also a factor. "One of the misconceptions with wound healing is that recovery or healing is going to happen as swiftly as it did when you were younger," he said. But with each passing decade, your body loses some of its ability to recover quickly. This may be exacerbated by certain medications and cardiovascular conditions, as they can limit the flow of blood to the incision — which is essential for healing.
Getting enough of the right nutrients is critical when recovering from surgery. Your body needs extra energy from calories as well as nutrients including protein, amino acids, vitamins and minerals to generate new tissue.
Following major surgeries, our bodies require a significant number of calories to support healing, Nelson explained. "The cells for each stage of healing require specific nutrients," he continued. "And if you don't have those nutrients, the cells aren't going to be able to adequately do their job and the healing process can become stalled.”
However, your appetite and ability to tolerate foods might be lower during recovery. In addition, a normal diet may not be enough to supply adequate levels of certain nutrients that are essential for the wound healing process. In these scenarios, supplementation is vital to bridge the nutrition gap. Therapeutic nutritional drinks like Juven® are specially formulated to provide targeted nutrition for wound healing.
Juven, backed by more than 40 studies and clinically shown to support wound healing by increasing collagen formation in as little as two weeks1*, contains a blend of nutrients that are major players in the wound healing process, including:
During times of trauma, the body lacks enough of these essential amino acids, meaning you'll have to increase your intake to get more of them. Arginine helps to promote the production of protein, enhances cell growth, triggers collagen production, strengthens immune function and promotes blood flow. Glutamine also promotes collagen production and supports a healthy immune system. Together, these activities help support vital repair and rebuilding.
This is collagen that's been broken down into building blocks, providing our bodies with the raw materials needed to cover a wound. It helps to increase the body's collagen level and stimulates the production of internal collagen at the wound site.
Short for β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate, HMB is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine. HMB helps slow muscle breakdown while also spurring protein synthesis.
This mineral aids in DNA and protein synthesis, immune function and skin integrity.
These antioxidants help the body recover and manage cell damage. Vitamin C helps improve collagen strength, while vitamin E assists in stabilizing cells.
This vitamin increases levels of red blood cells and hemoglobin, allowing the body to easily get oxygen and nutrients to the incision site for healing. It also helps spur collagen production.
Talk to your doctor before adding anything new to your diet, especially after surgery, and ask if adding Juven would be appropriate for your recovery nutrition plan. Juven should be used in addition to an already nutrient-rich diet that includes foods like fruits, vegetables, lean meats and dairy.
Understanding how wound healing works and how nutrition plays a critical role in the healing process is the first step on the road to recovery. For more tips on how to bounce back after surgery, consider working with a dietitian. Not only can they create an eating plan customized just for you, but they can also guide you on ways to maintain good health year-round.
1 Williams JZ, et al. Ann Surg. 2002; 236:369-374.
* as measured by hydroxyproline levels in healthy elderly adults as part of a wound healing model, taking 2 servings per day
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Wound Healing Support Through Nutrition
Each person is unique, so it makes sense that the wound healing rate would vary from one person to another. But for nutritionally at-risk individuals, especially those with underlying health issues such as cancer, diabetes and other chronic conditions, the wound healing process after injuries and surgeries may not proceed as expected.
Nutrition for Wound Healing: How to Spot and Overcome Recovery Hurdles
We're all different. But we're all made up of 99.9% of the same DNA, meaning our bodies aren't so different after all. In fact, we need many of the same elements to function. This is especially true with nutrition for wound healing. Poor nutrition is just one factor that can delay wound healing. Age, as well as health conditions, such as diabetes or cancer, malnutrition, and cardiovascular issues can further impact healing. Soft-tissue infections and medications can also contribute to delayed wound healing. Jeff Nelson, a senior research scientist at Abbott, illuminated the link between nutrition and healing: "The body's priority is survival, so available nutrients get routed to organs first. What remains is sent to support the wound healing process— and it may not be enough." Nutrition for Wound Healing When working to heal wounds, Nelson said, people should prioritize conditionally essential nutrients — amino acids like arginine and glutamine that the body can typically synthesize on its own, but that may be underproduced in physiologically stressful scenarios like during illness or following surgery. Arginine can be found in meats like turkey, pork and chicken, as well as plant proteins like pumpkin and sesame seeds. Glutamine is found in fish, cabbage, spinach and tofu. Conditionally essential amino acids aren’t the only nutrients that support healing. Other helpful ingredients include: Protein from poultry, fish, eggs and beans. HMB (β-hydroxy-β-methylbutyrate) from a nutrition supplement like Juven. Zinc from whole grains, chickpeas, cashews and almonds. Vitamin C from citrus fruits, broccoli and bell peppers. Vitamin E from vegetable oils, nuts and seeds. Vitamin B12 from fish, meat and milk products. Without proper nutrition, Nelson stressed, wounds may be slow to heal moving from acute to chronic status and resulting in more serious complications.