Expectation vs. Reality: What It’s Really Like To Recover From A Tummy Tuck

You’ve asked questions, looked at pictures, and read stories, but what can you really expect from the tummy tuck recovery process? We’ve got you covered.
Written by India Bottomley
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Expectation vs. Reality: What It’s Really Like To Recover From A Tummy TuckJannes Jacobs/Unsplash

When considering cosmetic surgery, there is plenty of research to be done as it relates to types of procedures, quality of results, and expertise of providers. A facet of the procedure that’s crucial to keep in mind: downtime and recovery. Generally speaking, surgical procedures have a longer and more involved healing process than non-surgical alternatives, but what does that actually mean in terms of what you can expect in the days, weeks, and months after treatment?

If you are thinking about having an abdominoplasty (a.k.a. tummy tuck), chances are you’ve been looking through before and after photos, pricing out the surgery, reading stories of the recovery process, and wondering what’s in store. To give you a clearer picture of what tummy tuck recovery is actually like, we’re breaking down what can be expected from the perspective of providers and patients alike. While recovery and results will look different for everyone and plastic surgeons have their own recommendations to ensure patients the best possible outcome, we’re offering some honest insight into what it’s really like to recover from a tummy tuck.

Tummy Tuck Recovery Timeline

During the consultation and pre-op preparations, your surgeon will share what can be expected during the recovery process and when you can return to normal activities after surgery. There may be particular milestones that are important to you, such as going back to work, exercising, or picking up young children. The amount of downtime depends on the patient and procedure, but here is a general timeline for recovering from an abdominoplasty.

Day 0

From the time you check-in to the time you are discharged, a tummy tuck is a full-day affair. As Jeff Church, MD, a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Wilmington, NC, explains, the vast majority of abdominoplasties are performed at outpatient facilities. “Most surgery centers have the patient come one to two hours before surgery,” he says. “The surgery takes about three hours, and patients typically stay another hour or so for recovery.”

Whether you go home the same day or stay overnight for observation is up to your surgeon, but “most tummy tucks are performed as an outpatient surgery, meaning you are able to return home on the same day,” says Olivia MaDan, MD, a board eligible plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Nashville, TN. Because general anesthesia is involved, you will need someone to drive you home and, if possible, stay with you for the first few days to help change dressings, administer pain medication (prescription and over-the-counter), care for children, and tend to any chores.

The First 48 Hours

For the first 48 hours after a tummy tuck, you will feel drowsy (a lingering side effect of the anesthesia) and sore. “Patients can expect to have incisional, inflammatory, and muscle spasm pain,” Dr. MaDan says. Discomfort “is controlled with pain medication, as well as an injectable anesthetic called Exparel® that we administer during the procedure,” explains Jules Walters III, MD, a board certified plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Metairie, LA. Expect it “to improve each day,” he shares.

You may be tempted to turn into a couch potato and use the downtime as an excuse to catch up on Squid Game, but gentle movement is perhaps the most important medicine during this time. “I ask that my patients get up and move around starting when they get home on the day of surgery,” Dr. Church says. A simple walk around the house every couple of hours will do the trick, Dr. Walters adds.

Depending on the technique of your surgeon, you may or may not go home with drains. “I usually avoid leaving a drainage tube by placing many internal stitches,” Dr. MaDan notes. “The drainage tube often causes significant discomfort after a tummy tuck.” But all patients will be encouraged to wear compression garments for several weeks. “I counsel my patient's to wear their compression garments 24/7 (except for showering) for six weeks after surgery,” she says.

At Dr. Walters practice, compression and massage are both employed to manage post-op swelling. “Our patients wear a series of compression garments and foam for a total of about three months post-op,” he explains. “Our patients undergo postoperative lymphatic drainage massages and size down on their garments as swelling subsides.”

Week 1

While you undoubtedly heard from your surgeon and their team in the hours and days after the procedure, your first in-person check up usually comes about a week after surgery. They will check your incisions, remove dressings and drains (if they’re still in place), and answer any questions you may have about the healing process or resuming activities.

Speaking of activities, they are still pretty restricted the first week — though short walks remain important. You should also be wearing compression garments as per your surgeon’s instructions. Swelling and discomfort are common. “I tell my patients that for the first week they will wonder why they did it, the second week they will think they will be ok, and by the third week they will know they will be ok,” Dr Church says. “Most patients are doing fairly well with their normal activities by four to six weeks.”

Weeks 2 & 3

At either the two- or three-week mark, you will visit your surgeon again for a follow-up appointment, but, in the meantime, you may be able to resume certain non-strenuous activities. “I usually recommend about two weeks off of work and most basic activities,” Dr. Walters says. “At that point, patients are usually no longer taking pain medication and are able to begin driving and getting back to most normal day-to-day tasks.”

When it comes to driving, he suggests starting slow. “I always recommend first sitting in the driveway and pressing down on the brake and making sure you are able to move with a full range of motion to drive safely,” he shares.

Dr. Church asks patients to exercise similar caution behind the wheel — and in general. “I allow my patients to drive when they feel safe to drive and they are not taking pain medications,” he says. “I ask my patients not to do activities that could elevate their blood pressure or heart rate for the first two weeks.” After those first 14 days, it’s all about mindfulness. “I tell them to listen to their bodies after the first two weeks and if something hurts then to back off,” he adds. No matter how much better you think you are feeling, now is not the time to overdo it.

1 Month & Beyond

Once you reach the one-most post-op mark, you will likely be starting to feel like yourself again. Swelling lingers but you should be through the worst of it. You will return to your surgeon’s office for another check-up, and you may be cleared to resume additional activities. “For lifting heavy objects and exercising, I recommend easing back into this about four weeks after surgery,” Dr. Walters says.

It should be noted that while most patients are “free from restrictions at four to six weeks post-op, the body continues to improve and recover up to six months or even one year after surgery,” Dr. Walters notes. Even so, you can generally expect to have a sense of your results three to four months after a tummy tuck. Keep in mind, however, that “minor swelling can be present for three-plus months after surgery,” Dr. MaDan says.

As it relates to scars, it takes a full year for the incision sites to fully heal. Your surgeon will likely recommend a skincare and sun care protocol to minimize scarring and additional in-office treatments (think: lasers and microneedling) may be available to refine the appearance of post-op marks.

Patient Perspective

Now that you have a better sense of the timeline associated with recovering from a tummy tuck, it’s time to hear what it’s like from a patient perspective.

Allie, 47, Los Angeles, CA

Allie decided to have a tummy tuck after having children to help her feel more confident. She opted to have the surgery during the pandemic because it allowed her more time to recover discreetly.

The AEDITION: What questions did you have about the tummy tuck recovery process?

Allie: I started researching the procedure a few years ago. I’ll be honest, I’m somewhat of a hypochondriac, so I know my way around Dr. Google when it comes to researching recovery! I had a fair idea of what I thought recovery would be like before speaking to a surgeon, but I still had questions that were specific to my lifestyle when it came to the consultation. I wanted to know when I would be allowed to fly and travel abroad. Exercising was a big one for me, too. I rely on running for my mental health, so I wanted to be clear on when he expected I would be able to return to that.

The AEDITION: How did your recovery compare to what you had expected?

Allie: The most significant difference was the amount of soreness and how grossed out I was by the drains I had in place. I knew to expect to be in pain, but the type of pain was different and not something I could even really describe. It sort of felt deeper than pain from other surgeries I’d had in the past. I also didn’t expect to be sore for so long after the surgery. I had to wait longer than planned before I could start running again, which frustrated me at the time but was worthwhile.

The AEDITION: What advice do you have for someone considering a tummy tuck?

Allie: I think any amount of information you find online is excellent, but, unless it comes from a surgeon or someone who has been through the experience themselves, you will struggle to get a complete understanding of the procedure. I was fortunate that a friend had the procedure a while back, and we connected before I had the procedure. A couple of times, I contacted her with questions that felt too trivial to bother a doctor with but that I didn’t want to rely on Google for.

Joss, 32, Long Beach, CA

After losing weight, Joss wanted to make the results he achieved more visible. After exploring a few different options, a tummy tuck proved to be the best procedure for the results he was seeking.

The AEDITION: What did your recovery entail?

Joss: I was very fortunate that everything went smoothly. I prepared for the surgery as I would for any other big event: I trained and ate to plan and made sure I was in a good headspace before going ahead with the procedure. I think it made a difference to how well recovery went for me, but it may also be down to luck and genetics! I was sure to plan my surgery at a time where taking weeks away from work would be ok, and I’m glad I gave myself space to recover fully before getting back to a full-on schedule.

The AEDITION: Did your recovery process differ from what you expected?

Joss: I honestly didn’t know what to expect. Of course my surgeon told me when I would be able to resume certain activities and so forth, but I didn’t know how I would feel after surgery and didn’t do all that much in terms of practical preparation around the house. I hadn’t expected to feel as tired as I did, but the pain was less all-consuming than I thought it may have been. If you live alone or with someone out at work full time, I would recommend asking a friend or hiring a nurse to stay with you for the first few days or even the first week. While I could walk around, I felt exhausted and needed help making sure I kept to my medication schedule and ate well.

The AEDITION: Based on the recovery and results, would you recommend a tummy tuck to others?

Joss: I would but with a caveat — know that recovery is involved, and, if you have a physical job or young kids, you will need help for around four weeks after surgery. If you plan for the procedure and can give yourself enough time to recover gently, then I think it’s one of the most life-altering surgeries out there. It’s undoubtedly transformed how I see myself and has increased my quality of life, which I never thought could be possible from cosmetic surgery.

Preparing for a Smooth Recovery from a Tummy Tuck

A smooth recovery from any surgery starts in the lead up to the procedure. “An ideal peri-operative plan is to complete the necessary tasks — especially any requiring heavy lifting or exertion — before surgery,” Dr. MaDan says. That includes considering what you are going to eat in the days after your procedure. “It is a great idea to have some healthy, high-protein meals planned for the first few days post-op,” Dr. Walters notes.

Another essential? Arranging a driver to and from surgery. Since your mobility will be very limited for at least the first week after a tummy tuck, a helping hand can go a long way. “Help at home is beneficial to assist with child or pet care, perform any necessary tasks, and assist with mobility, like walking up stairs or getting in and out of the shower,” Dr. MaDan explains.

The less you have to think about, the better. As Dr. Walters says, “it is always best to be prepared so you don’t have to worry about these things while recovering.”

*Patient names have been changed

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INDIA BOTTOMLEYis a contributing writer for AEDIT.

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