Friday, October 22, 2004

Is a hysterectomy like a C-section?

Although many women come to a hysterectomy as novices to surgery entirely, a certain number have previously had a child delivered by Caesarian section. Because this is an abdominal surgery affecting the uterus, it's natural to try to compare the two experiences as part of envisioning what hyst recovery will entail. However obvious this comparison may seem, the fact is that they really aren't equivalent surgeries.

First, there is the experience of the C-section itself. There are so many variations in pain tolerance, not to mention both birth and hyst experiences that I don't quite know how to find a common ground. There are women who are inconvenienced by both; women who can say yes, it wasn't a picnic but I survived it okay; and women who think it was the most exquisite agony they ever experienced or could conceive of experiencing.

What I can tell you is that from reading many years of women's reactions, the majority admit discomfort, a great many admit pain of some degree that was of limited duration and dealt with adequately by analgesic drugs, and a very limited few (and most often those are ones with especially complex suegeries, poor care, or who develop complications) report truly unbearable or excruciating pain. Depending upon how you experienced childbirth, you may have gained a clue about your own tolerance for pain.

The other aspect, and it's a very important one in developing your expectations of how your hyst will go, is that because you're talking major surgery (that is: cutting, removing, rerouting stuff internally), you are talking a much more prolonged recovery than childbirth, where it is more a matter of simply returning to a previous state (even in a Caesarian, there is little disruption of abdominal contents other than to heal some very basic incisions). It's a common myth that a hyst is "just like a Caesarian" and this really can lead to shock and disappointment later (or, among friends, co-workers, and the whole other rest of the world who may feel free to comment on your condition).

But in the course of a hysterectomy, your bladder is peeled loose from your uterus, many things are cut (nerves, ligaments, blood vessels), your ovaries and their supporting structures may or may not be removed, your vagina will be given an artificial ending, and all of the support that used to derive from your uterus and its attachments has to be relocated to hold up the end of the vagina, the bladder, and your guts. On top of this, your other organs are handled, pushed out of the way, rinsed off, and then reassembled. There are sutures and sutures and staples and multiple closures to hold all these things back together again. The tissue damage is higher, you are under anesthesia longer and with more drugs, and your risks of infection are higher. And that's assuming you aren't also having endo removed, scarring cut apart, bladder suspension, or rectocele/cystocele repairs done. So this surgery is much more complex than just making a slit, removing the uterine contents, and sewing the slit closed again. And it takes a correspondingly longer time to heal and heal well.

I'm not trying to intimidate you here, but rather to make sure that you're clear on what to expect. It's not by any means an impossible or even wildly difficult experience, but it is important to be realistic in all your it's very good that you are thinking and looking for a conceptual framework to base your expectations on.

But "much worse" is not exactly how I would term it. It will take longer to get a good recovery, so if you measure success in time elapsed, you will indeed find this one more demanding. Pain? There is no excuse for either one to hurt more than the other, for pain relief is pain relief, irrespective of cause. Don't settle for less than you need, but also remember that it is not the role of pain medication to make you oblivious. A reasonable objective is that you will be in minimal discomfort while lying still and tolerable discomfort when moving around and right significant discomfort if you do something inadvisable for your level of healing. It is also reasonable to expect that you will be aware of and guarding your surgical site from discomfort for the longer healing period.

But many many women report that their hyst post-op discomfort was really not much worse than significant period cramps and in many cases was considerably easier than the chronic gynecological pain some women experience. Your goal as you heal is to be guided by your discomfort, such that if you begin to experience it, you need to slack off and not stress your healing.

Maybe this will help you get a better handle on the situation ahead of you than just the scary "worse" label. It's doable, it's work, it's not pleasant but it's not gruesome. There is always someone who has complications, who has a bumbling doctor or inept staff, who has a different personal or cultural definition of pain tolerance, and those with problems always have more to say about something than those who found an event manageable. If you can try to hang onto this sort of perspective, I think you'll find that you too will be able to handle this surgery pretty satisfyingly.