What happens if you don’t keep your foot elevated after surgery?

Keeping your foot elevated after surgery is extremely important for proper healing and recovery. Failure to keep your foot elevated can lead to a number of complications that can negatively impact the success of your surgery and prolong your recovery time. In this article, we will discuss why it is so important to keep your foot elevated after surgery and what can happen if you do not follow your doctor’s instructions to keep your foot propped up.

Why Keep Your Foot Elevated After Surgery?

There are several critical reasons why you must keep your foot elevated following surgery:

  • Reduces swelling – Keeping your foot raised above the level of your heart utilizes gravity to minimize pooling of blood and fluids in your foot and ankle that cause swelling and inflammation.
  • Improves circulation – Elevation improves venous circulation which allows proper draining of surgical sites and improves oxygenation for better healing.
  • Decreases pain – Swelling puts pressure on nerves in the surgical area leading to more post-op pain. Elevation alleviates this pressure and discomfort.
  • Prevents blood clots – Immobility after surgery can lead to dangerous blood clots in the veins. Elevation gets blood flowing to prevent clot formation.
  • Speeds recovery – Reducing swelling, pain, and risk of blood clots all help you bounce back more quickly from surgery.

Keeping your foot elevated is a simple but essential step for optimal recovery after foot and ankle procedures. Do not ignore your surgeon’s post-op instructions to keep your foot raised.

Complications from Not Elevating Your Foot

Failing to keep your foot properly elevated after surgery can hinder your recovery in the following ways:

Excess Swelling

One of the main goals of elevating your foot is to minimize swelling around the surgical site. Swelling constricts blood flow, presses on nerves, and strains healing tissues. If you do not keep your foot raised, fluid will pool in your lower extremity leading to significant swelling. This excess swelling causes increased pain, stiffness, bruising, and other problems.

Poor Circulation

Proper circulation is vital for transporting oxygen and nutrients required for healing after surgery. If your foot stays down, gravity pulls blood into your lower leg and away from your heart. This sluggish circulation deprives your surgical site of oxygen and delays healing.

Greater Risk of Infection

Swelling and poor circulation also raise your risk of developing an infection in your surgical wound. Your immune system needs good blood flow to fight bacteria and prevent infection. Inadequate elevation starves your incision of the circulation needed to deliver infection-fighting cells.

Formation of Blood Clots

Lack of movement after surgery already makes you prone to dangerous blood clots in your calf veins. Not raising your foot worsens this risk by allowing blood to pool in your lower leg. Blood clots can break off and block arteries in your lungs, heart, or brain – possibly causing death.

Increased Pain

As mentioned previously, fluid accumulation and swelling puts pressure on nerves and incisions leading to more post-operative pain. This not only makes recovery uncomfortable, but excessive pain can keep you from effectively performing rehabilitation exercises.

Delayed Wound Healing

All of the above complications mean it takes longer for your surgical wound to close and heal. Poor blood flow, high swelling, potential infection, and lack of movement when in pain all stand in the way of proper healing. Not elevating your foot sabotages your incision’s ability to repair itself.

Prolonged Stiffness and Loss of Motion

Excess swelling, circulatory impairment, blood clots, and delayed healing can lead to scar tissue build up and loss of range of motion around your joint. Your injury may even heal in a contracted position resulting in chronic stiffness if swelling is not minimized through elevation.

Need for Additional Surgery

In severe cases, complications from not elevating your foot may necessitate a return trip to the operating room. For instance, a joint that healed crookedly may need surgical release. Unresolved circulation issues or chronic wounds might also require surgery to correct.

How to Elevate Your Foot After Surgery

Here are some tips for properly elevating your foot after surgery:

  • Use 2-3 pillows or foam wedges to raise your ankle above the level of your heart.
  • Do not just prop your foot up on a pillow – your entire ankle and calf should be elevated.
  • Lie down and put your leg up when possible to achieve maximal elevation.
  • When sitting, use a stool or ottoman to keep your foot raised above your hip.
  • Use crutches or knee scooters to avoid placing weight on your foot.
  • Keep your foot elevated for at least 72 hours, or as long as your doctor recommends.
  • Remove compression dressings if they are too tight and affecting circulation.
  • Take circulation breaks every 30-60 minutes – lower your foot and move your ankle gently.
  • Sleep with your foot raised on pillows.

The key is to keep your ankle raised above heart level at all times in the first several days after surgery. Adapt pillows, bolsters, rolled blankets or other items around your home to comfortably prop up your leg. Keep your mobility aids close by and move carefully to avoid letting your foot hang down.

When to Call Your Doctor

Contact your surgeon right away if you experience any of the following warning signs:

  • Unrelenting pain not eased by medication, elevation or ice.
  • Excessive bleeding or drainage from incisions.
  • Heavy swelling of your ankle or calf.
  • Skin around your foot turning pale, blue or gray.
  • Numbness, tingling or coolness of your foot and toes.
  • Fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Increasing redness, warmth or soreness around incisions.
  • Pus or foul-smelling discharge coming from your wound.
  • No improvement in your pain, swelling or mobility after 72 hours.

Any of the above could indicate complications like infection, blood clots, poor circulation or other problems requiring urgent medical attention. Stay in close contact with your care team and do not hesitate to call about any worrying symptoms.

Long-Term Effects of Improper Elevation

Failing to properly elevate your foot after surgery does not just affect your short-term recovery. It can also have detrimental long-standing impacts such as:

  • Chronic stiffness, swelling, or pain in your joint.
  • Decreased mobility due to scar tissue or contracted position of healed joint.
  • Abnormal gait pattern even years later from joint not healing properly.
  • Post-traumatic arthritis due to excess inflammation during recovery period.
  • Chronic venous insufficiency causing ongoing leg swelling and numbness.
  • Higher risk of blood clots in future due to damage to veins.
  • Osteopenia or thinning of leg bones from extended immobility.

Your body will be working for weeks and months after surgery to fully mend damaged tissues. Supporting this healing process through early elevation minimizes your risk of complications that could bother you long after your operation.

Listen to Your Surgeon

In summary, there are significant short and long-term consequences when you do not follow post-op instructions to keep your foot elevated. Healing tissues need proper blood flow, relief of swelling and immobilization in the initial recovery period. Your entire surgical experience and ultimate functional outcome are dependent on adhering to elevation guidelines. Do not take this simple but essential directive lightly. Give your foot the lift it needs by diligently propping it up during your initial rehab. Listen to your surgeon, elevate early and often, and avoid the pitfalls of keeping your foot too flat after surgery.

Complication Cause Effect
Excess Swelling Failure to elevate leads to fluid pooling in the foot Increased pain, stiffness, nerve compression
Poor Circulation Foot staying down allows blood to pool in the extremity Reduced blood flow impairs oxygen delivery to wound
Higher Infection Risk Swelling and poor circulation inhibit immune cells from reaching incision Bacteria can multiply leading to infected wound
Blood Clots Lack of movement and circulation allows blood to clot in calf veins Clots can break off and cause heart attack, stroke or other life threatening complications
Increased Pain Excess fluid placing pressure on incision and nerves Discomfort makes rehabilitation exercises challenging
Delayed Healing Combination of poor blood flow, high swelling, potential infection Incisions take longer to seal and repair
Stiffness & Loss of Motion Scar tissue, contracted position from swelling, inadequate rehab due to pain Chronic loss of joint mobility
Need for Additional Surgery If complications like circulation loss or crooked healing are severe May require trips to the OR to revise original surgery


Keeping your foot elevated after surgery is crucial for minimizing swelling, improving circulation, preventing blood clots, managing pain, and optimizing your recovery. Fail to properly elevate your foot and ankle, and you risk serious complications like infection, stiffness, chronic pain and poor wound healing. Follow your surgeon’s elevation instructions diligently in the first days and weeks after your procedure. Keep your foot up, or the consequences could truly weigh you down. Take elevation seriously and give your foot the lift it needs to heal its best after surgery.

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