Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/17/2021
Undergoing surgery can be a stressful, challenging process. Not only can surgery cause you to deal with physical limitations, but the recovery process can be painful and require you to make changes to your normal routine.
Because of these factors, it’s far from uncommon to experience postoperative depression while you recover from surgery.
Below, we’ve explained what post-surgery depression is, why it happens and the symptoms you may experience if you’ve recently undergone surgery and feel depressed.
We’ve also discussed what you can do if you’re feeling depressed after undergoing surgery, as well as the treatment options that can help you to feel better.
Post-surgery depression is a form of situational depression that can develop after you undergo a surgical procedure.
Although it’s not recognized as a specific type of depression (like major depression or seasonal affective disorder), post-op depression is well known in the medical community.
It’s far from uncommon to feel depressed after surgery. For example, in one study, researchers found that more than 10 percent of people who underwent knee osteoarthritis surgery reported feeling depressed following the procedure.
Other research has found even higher rates of post-surgery depression. For example, a review of depression in intensive care units found a 28 percent rate of depression in patients who had undergone surgery.
Depression can cause a diverse range of symptoms that affect your moods, feelings, thoughts and behavior. When you’re depressed, you may experience some of the following symptoms:
Pessimistic or hopeless feelings and thoughts
A persistent sad, helpless or “empty” mood
Feelings of anxiousness or worry
Reduced energy and a need to sleep during the day
Feeling as if you’re guilty or worthless
Difficulty sleeping at night or waking up early in the morning
Changes in your movement speed and speech patterns
A lack of interest in your normal hobbies and favorite activities
Difficulty sitting still or focusing on specific tasks
Poor memory and decision-making skills
Loss of appetite and weight loss, or a greater appetite and weight gain
Muscle cramps, aches and other pains without an obvious cause
Digestive problems that don’t improve with medication
The symptoms of depression can vary in severity. In order to be diagnosed with depression, it’s usually necessary to experience symptoms most of the time on a daily basis for a period of two weeks or longer.
Our full guide to the symptoms of depression shares more warning signs to look out for if you’re worried about developing depression after surgery.
Depression after surgery can develop for many reasons. Sometimes, it may be a worse version of depression that existed before undergoing surgery. In other cases, it may be associated with the stress or physical trauma of undergoing an operation.
Surgery can be a stressful experience. Not only does it involve pain, discomfort and a recovery period in which you may not be able to maintain your normal life routines, but it’s often a costly affair that may strain your finances.
All of these things — stress, trauma and major life changes — are known risk factors for mental health issues, including depression.
In some cases, you might feel depressed before undergoing surgery as a result of the stress or anxiety of being operated on. If you’re already affected by depression, undergoing surgery may make your symptoms worse.
Interestingly, research suggests that pre-existing depression may be associated with a greater risk of postoperative complications.
Sometimes, depression isn’t caused by surgery itself, but by specific physical illnesses that can require surgery to treat.
Research shows that depressive symptoms are linked to heart disease, stroke, chronic fatigue, fibromyalgia and chronic pain. Some medications that are prescribed to treat these issues and others can also cause or contribute to depression.
A variety of different issues can cause or contribute to depression after surgery. You may have a higher risk of feeling depressed if you experience one of the following issues:
Postoperative pain, discomfort and inconvenience. Recovering from surgery can be a painful, challenging process. You might feel depressed as a result of changes that you need to make to your routine or physical limitations that you face during recovery.
Reactions to medication. Some medications used to relieve pain or prevent infections after surgery may increase your risk of developing depression.
Reactions to anesthesia. Research suggests that general anesthesia may contribute to post-surgery depression. For example, a study of mothers found that general anesthesia during delivery was associated with an increased risk of postpartum depression.
Worries about surgical complications. You may be more likely to develop depression or anxiety after surgery if you develop a complication, or if you undergo a surgery that’s classified as high-risk.
Like other forms of depression, postsurgical depression is treatable. You may be able to reduce the severity of your depression by preparing before surgery, making changes to your lifestyle or habits, or by talking to a licensed mental health provider.
Try the following techniques to prepare before surgery and manage any depression symptoms you experience after surgery.
One way to reduce your risk of developing depression after surgery is to know what to expect after the procedure.
Before you undergo surgery, try to find out how long the post-op recovery period will last, what you’ll need to do during this period, what medications you’ll need to take while recovering and anything else that’s relevant.
Make sure to talk to your healthcare provider and ask them anything you’d like to know before and after your surgery. If you have concerns after surgery, make sure to contact your provider so that you can get the advice, assistance and information you need.
Many surgeries have a lengthy post-operative recovery period, during which you might not be able to exercise.
It can be tempting to ‘make the most” of this recovery period by eating junk food, allowing your sleep habits to decline and picking up other unhealthy habits.
While it’s okay to indulge a little, it’s best to try and focus on healthy habits that will allow you to recover. This means:
Eating a balanced, healthy diet, especially if your healthcare provider has given specific foods to prioritize during recovery.
Maintaining a regular sleep schedule. Aim for at least seven hours of sleep per night, or more if you have undergone a major surgery that requires lots of rest and recovery.
Exercising. If you’re allowed to exercise following surgery, some light exercise may help to improve your mood. Your healthcare provider may give you specific exercises to do as you recover to improve your mobility and physical function.
Recovering from surgery can be a difficult process, especially when you’re alone. If you isolate yourself after undergoing surgery, you could have an elevated risk of developing depression or other mental health issues.
Try to spend time with your partner, close friends and family after surgery. Not only can people help you with your recovery — they can also distract you from your worries and help to improve your mood.
Recovering from surgery isn’t an overnight event. It might take you weeks to start feeling better and several months to fully recover from your surgery.
During this period, try to keep track of your progress. Set realistic goals and check back often to see how well you’re doing. Pay attention to the small amount of progress you make each week, as it can often add up to significant progress over the long term.
If your depression doesn’t improve over time, it’s important to seek professional help. You can do this by letting your healthcare provider know that you’re feeling depressed, either at one of your post-op appointments or by contacting them directly.
Your healthcare provider may provide a referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist or other mental health provider in your area.
Alternatively, you can connect with a licensed psychiatry provider from home using our online psychiatry service.
To help you recover from depression, your provider may prescribe antidepressants, suggest a form of psychotherapy or use a combination of treatment options. Make sure to closely follow your mental health provider’s instructions and let them know if your symptoms worsen.
Depression is one of the most common mental health conditions, with an estimated 19.4 million US adults affected in the year leading up to 2019, respectively.
If you’re preparing for surgery, or if you’ve recently undergone surgery, it’s important to be aware of the risk of postsurgery depression. By preparing ahead of time, you may be more able to deal with post-op stress, discomfort and other factors that can affect your moods and feelings.
If you feel depressed after surgery, don’t feel hesitant to reach out to your healthcare provider or a mental health professional for support.
Need to talk to a mental health expert right now? Our online mental health services allow you to connect with a mental health provider from home for psychiatry, talk therapy or free anonymous support groups.
You can also find out more about successfully dealing with depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness using our free online mental health resources.