Surgical Scar Healing: Skin Safety
If you’ve had surgery and are curious about surgical scar healing, this article is for you. From someone who’s had elbow surgery and fully healed the scar site, I’ve got tips to help the skin.
After Surgery: Surgical Scar Healing
I had to have elbow surgery after a bike accident. They performed the procedure in an outpatient surgical suite. Once I woke up from the anesthesia, it was time to go home.
The surgeon gave me instructions prior to the operation. He also called my husband when the surgery was over to review how to keep the arm safe. They also gave me written discharge instructions on surgical scar healing.
Well, I did what the doctor ordered in the acute phase after surgery. I kept my arm in a sling when I was up and walking around. I elevated my arm, propping it up on pillows, whenever I was seated. I used ice packs intermittently throughout the day to reduce swelling.
The Recovery Phase: Healing in New Ways
After 10 days of being in a hard cast, I went back to the surgeon’s office. They removed the cast and took X-rays. On the screen, everything was looking good. But now my arm was exposed to air, and I was a little nervous about the surgical scar.
In fact, I was more than nervous. I was afraid.
Blood and guts type stuff freaks me out. I’m unable to look at my husband’s fingers when he comes home from work with a slice on his hand (he’s in construction, so sliced fingers are part of the job).
Now I was going to have this huge scar across my arm. Well, not even a scar… first, it was the actual surgical sutures. They were exposed! I could see them… if I dared to look.
The surgeon explained to me that the sutures would dissolve or fall out on their own. I shouldn’t have to do anything with them, but he told me that my occupational therapist would examine the sutures when I was going through my therapy appointments. That information gave me a sigh of relief… at least a medical professional would check up on my surgical scar healing.
Scar Health: What I’ve Learned
It definitely was an interesting experience. My sutures never dissolved or fell out. In fact, they were in longer than my surgeon said they would be and so the occupational therapist actually cut them out during one of my appointments.
The therapist also told me that if I wanted to avoid scar tissue and further complications, I would have to massage my scar site and move the skin around the elbow itself. Yikes! I was going to have to touch the scar??!! That didn’t sound fun at all.
Well, I did as any good patient was told. I followed the orders, despite how icky it made me feel. I didn’t want to experience scar tissue, nor was I interested in any additional complications.
So, here’s what I’ve learned regarding surgical scar healing. I’d like to share six tips for keeping the healing skin safe.
1) Keep the Surgical Site Clean
Now, this may sound like a no-brainer, but you definitely want to clean the surgical scar. It may feel weird, bumpy, or painful but do your best to wash the scar daily.
I was told to use a basic soap and water wash. You don’t need anything fancy and want to avoid harsh chemicals. So, just hopping into the bath or shower and washing the scar with warm water and soap.
Keeping the scar clean will ensure that it doesn’t get infected. You definitely don’t want a skin infection complicating the surgical scar healing.
2) Avoid the Sun
While I am all for nature therapy and believe getting outside on a daily basis helps with healing, you don’t want your scarred skin to be exposed to sunshine. At least, initially.
Be sure to apply sunblock to the surgical site if you’re going to be outside in the sun. You may even consider wrapping your surgical scar for further protection.
For me, since my surgery was at my elbow, I was given a mesh sleeve to wear under my removable splint. Even when I wasn’t wearing my splint, if I was outside in the sun, I would wear my mesh sleeve. The sleeve would be wrapped around my elbow which wouldn’t let the sun rays hit it.
3) Move the Skin
My occupational therapist was big on me moving my arm skin. She had me taking my other hand and placing it on my arm and literally moving the skin up and down, side to side, and in circular motions.
You want to keep the skin moving so that it doesn’t adhere to the healing tissue inside your body. For me, I had to take my non-injured hand and place it on the elbow that had the surgery. Each day I was to move the skin up and down and side to side so that I didn’t develop scar tissue.
How is this related to surgical scar healing? Well, you don’t want scar tissue to develop inside of your body. Scar tissue increases inflammation. It also increases the risk of infection. And, scar tissue can mean that the surgical site itself can become swollen, redder, and not heal as well.
4) Massage the Scar
Kind of similar to the tip above, but not the same thing. So, while I just discussed the importance of moving the skin AROUND the scar, this suggestion is literally talking about the scar itself.
As gross as it may feel, you have to touch the scar. With clean hands, of course, you want to massage the scar itself. (Do this only when instructed that it’s safe to do so. Follow the instructions of your medical providers.)
Once my scar was a bit healed, I was able to massage it right on the scar site. In fact, I added another holistic remedy to my massaging: medical cannabis lotion. I brought my lotion into my occupational therapy appointment so my therapist could review the ingredient list. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t putting anything harmful on the scarred skin. She read the ingredients and gave me the go-ahead to use it!
Since I live in a state where medical cannabis is legal and because of my surgery, they approved me for a medical cannabis card. I could purchase a lotion that had THC and CBD ingredients. These additional remedies supported my surgical scar healing.
5) Intend Healing
It’s one thing to focus on the physical healing of the scar. It’s another to intend healing on a deeper level. Let me explain.
As a board-certified holistic nurse, I’ve got a lot of unconventional healing modalities up my sleeve (no pun intended). One thing I’ve learned along my training is a practice called metta.
Metta literally means “loving kindness”. Metta is something you can recite to yourself or aloud in order to intend healing on a mind, body, and spirit level.
How did I use metta for my surgery scar?
Well, in the evenings after a shower, I’d grab my cannabis lotion and close the door to my bathroom. I’d look at myself in the mirror and I’d lovingly rub the cream onto my scar. While I massaged the scar, I’d say aloud: “May I be healthy. May I feel well. May I experience healing.”
You can come up with your own mantras or you can use the ones I shared here above. The point is that you trust the healing is happening; you affirm it aloud or to yourself; and you invite healing energy to your mind, body, and spirit.
6) Desensitize the Skin
Remember how I told you I couldn’t even look at the scar in the mirror at first? Well, I had a really hard time touching it too. Or, letting anything come in contact with my elbow at all!
In fact, I was almost glad I had my bike accident in the summer (instead of winter or fall) because I didn’t have to bundle up my arm in colder weather. My healing happened when it was still nice enough outside for me to wear tank tops a lot of the time. And so, I didn’t have to have clothing touching my elbow.
Well, my occupational therapist didn’t love that. In fact, she wanted me to touch my elbow to all sorts of materials. Another “homework” I was given was to go into my clothes closet and find all sorts of fabrics. She literally wanted me to rub my arm against different textures as a way to desensitize the scar.
Ughhhh. It was difficult. At first. And then, with time and surgical scar healing, I noticed it got easier. In fact, I was actually able to start wearing long sleeves again. And good thing… just in time for winter… when I had to start putting a jacket on over my arm!
I hope this has helped you think about your scar and keeping it safe and healthy so it can heal properly. Even though my arm remains bent (to date), my surgical scar sure is healed! In fact, when I see it in the mirror, I barely notice it anymore.
Let me know if you have questions or need additional information. Happy to help. Click here to partner with me on your healing journey!
About the Author: Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, HNB-BC, RYT (200) is a board-certified holistic nurse, registered yoga instructor, and reiki master.
Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is a certified coach, nature lover, and avid meditator.
Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and playful pit bull. She enjoys gardening, jigsaw puzzles, farming, music, and hiking.