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Honesty Before Surgery: Why It’s Important to Tell Your Doctor the Truth



You’ve worked to get healthier, cut down on your drinking, and quit smoking the occasional cigarette you used to enjoy “once in a while.” At least, that’s what you’re telling people. We all want to present the best version of ourselves to the world, and you may hide some of your lingering bad habits from your family and friends.

However, the conversation you have with your doctor and anesthesiologist before surgery are not the time for euphemisms or half-truths.

“It may seem like an invasion of your privacy to share the details of your life,” says Michael B. Goldberg, M.D., a surgeon at Crozer Health. “But sharing those details can be important any time you’re having a major medical procedure, especially one that involves anesthesia.”

Your doctors have heard and seen virtually everything from their patients, so nothing you say will be shocking to them. Keep in mind that anything you say or share stays between you and your doctor.


Why Do They Ask So Many Personal Questions?

In addition to the standard questions about your medical history and past surgeries, your physicians may ask you some of these questions:

  • Do you currently smoke or have you smoked recently?
  • Do you drink alcohol and if so, how much?
  • Do you use any illegal or street drugs?
  • What supplements do you take?

“We are not just being curious,” explains Dr. Goldberg. “The answers you give can affect your treatment while you’re in surgery and during recovery.”


How Certain Habits Affect Surgery

Smoking affects your body in many ways. Some of those effects are more significant than the effects of the prescription drug you may be taking. For example, smokers often have more problems with their lungs and breathing while they are under anesthesia. They are also more likely to need a ventilator after surgery due to the increased risk of breathing and lung problems.

Smokers may have more difficulty with healing after surgery and are at an increased risk of developing infections. Oxygen in the blood is essential for helping wounds heal but because smoking causes your blood to absorb nicotine and carbon monoxide, it can also lower blood oxygen levels.

Alcohol and illegal street drugs can also create complications during and after surgery. Regular alcohol and drug use may impair liver function. That can change how some medications and anesthesia affect the body. Your anesthesiologist should know about your history of substance use or abuse so they can modify the amount of anesthesia you receive during surgery.

Like smoking, alcohol and drug use can impair your immune system. This impairment can slow down the healing process and increase the risk for postoperative infection.

While being asked about your smoking, alcohol and drug use may seem obvious, being asked about supplement use may not be. However, supplements, particularly herbal supplements, can have a significant effect on your body. Just because they say “natural” or “herbal” on the bottle does not mean they are safe for surgery.

Some herbal supplements, such as gingko biloba, ginseng, and fish oil are thought to increase the risk of bleeding. Others, such as St. John’s wort, kava, and valerian root are sedating, which can increase the sedative effect of the anesthesia used during surgery. Additionally, many supplements interact with medications that may be used during surgery or prescribed afterward.

So before your next surgery, remember that honesty is always the best policy. It will give you the greatest chance for a successful outcome with the fewest possible complications.

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