Prehab: The Power of Preparation Before Surgery

October 12, 2023

Surgery, for many, represents a pivotal turning point — an opportunity to rectify a health concern or enhance one’s quality of life. Yet, surgery is not without its challenges. While remarkably resilient, the human body often needs to be fortified for the stresses and strains of surgical procedures. Enter the realm of prehabilitation or, as it’s more commonly known, prehab.

Definition and the Concept Behind Prehabilitation

At its core, prehabilitation is a proactive health strategy. It refers to a structured program of exercises and interventions tailored to bolster a patient’s physical, mental, and nutritional health in anticipation of an upcoming surgery. This preparatory phase, usually spanning weeks or even months, is intended to amplify the body’s inherent strengths and address any potential weaknesses. The goal? To ensure patients are in the most optimal state before undergoing their procedures.

Unlike rehabilitation, which focuses on recuperation after the fact, prehab seeks to preempt potential challenges. It’s analogous to preparing for a marathon; just as runners would train months in advance to endure the rigours of the race, so too would patients undertake prehab to withstand and recover from surgery more efficiently.

Why It’s Becoming Increasingly Recognized in the Medical Community

There are several compelling reasons for the rising prominence of prehab in modern medicine:

  1. Evidence-Based Benefits: Recent studies have begun to underscore the tangible advantages of prehab. From reducing post-operative complications and hospital readmission rates to shortening the duration of hospital stays, the empirical evidence in favour of prehab is mounting.
  2. Patient Empowerment: Prehab offers patients an active role in their healthcare journey. By engaging in a prehab regimen, patients often feel a greater sense of control and ownership over their surgical outcomes.
  3. Cost-Efficiency: While it might seem counterintuitive, investing time and resources in prehab can lead to overall cost savings for healthcare systems. By mitigating potential post-operative complications and hastening recovery, prehab can reduce the need for extended hospital stays, repeat surgeries, or prolonged rehabilitation.
  4. Comprehensive Approach: The modern medical paradigm is evolving toward a more comprehensive model of patient care, wherein the emphasis isn’t solely on treating a condition but on ensuring overall well-being. Prehab fits perfectly within this framework, addressing not just the physical but also the mental and emotional aspects of surgical preparation.

In summary, as the medical community continues to emphasize evidence-based, patient-centric approaches, prehab stands out as a promising and effective strategy. By preparing patients for surgery, both physically and mentally, prehab is redefining the surgical journey, making it a collaborative endeavour that begins well before the actual procedure.

The Benefits of Prehab

Surgery, regardless of its complexity, is a significant event in an individual’s health journey. The outcomes, while predominantly successful, can vary based on a plethora of factors. One of the emerging determinants of a successful surgical outcome is the patient’s pre-operative health status. This is where prehabilitation (prehab) shines. By embracing prehab, patients can significantly augment their chances of a smoother surgical experience and a quicker recovery. Let’s delve deeper into the manifold benefits of this proactive approach.

Reducing the Risk of Complications During Surgery

Surgical complications can range from minor to severe and can significantly influence the outcome of the procedure. Engaging in prehab can markedly reduce these risks. By optimizing cardiovascular health, enhancing muscle strength, and improving respiratory function, prehab ensures the body is well-equipped to handle the stresses of surgery. Moreover, by addressing potential nutritional deficiencies, prehab can ensure that the body has the essential nutrients it requires to heal post-operation.

Shortening the Post-Surgical Recovery Period

A common concern among patients is the length of time it might take them to recover post-surgery. With prehab, the recovery timeline can be notably compressed. Patients who undergo prehab often experience less post-operative pain, reduced swelling, and quicker regains of mobility and function. This not only means a swifter return to daily activities but also a diminished reliance on post-surgical interventions like prolonged physiotherapy or medications.

Enhancing Physical and Mental Preparedness

The psychological impact of surgery cannot be overstated. For many, the anticipation of surgery is laden with anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. Prehab offers a twofold solution. On the physical front, a structured exercise regimen boosts endurance and resilience, enabling patients to face surgery with confidence. Mentally, the process of engaging in prehab can be empowering. By actively participating in their preparation, patients foster a sense of control and agency, which can be instrumental in alleviating pre-operative anxiety.

Maintaining or Even Improving Functional Capacity Before Surgery

A decline in functional capacity before surgery can have cascading effects on post-operative recovery. Patients might find themselves grappling with diminished strength, reduced mobility, or compromised cardiovascular health. Prehab acts as a countermeasure. Through targeted exercises and interventions, it seeks not just to maintain but, in many cases, enhance a patient’s functional capacity. Whether it’s improving joint range of motion before a knee replacement or boosting lung function prior to cardiac surgery, prehab ensures that patients are not just maintaining but thriving as they head into surgery.

In essence, the advantages of prehab extend beyond the tangible and measurable. While the physical benefits are substantial, the peace of mind it offers is equally invaluable. By positioning patients in the best possible mental and physical state before surgery, prehab stands as a testament to the power of preparation and proactive healthcare.

Common Surgeries Where Prehab is Recommended

The scope and significance of prehabilitation (prehab) have broadened considerably in recent years, moving from niche protocols to mainstream medical practice. While prehab can be advantageous for virtually any surgical procedure, it is particularly beneficial for surgeries that entail significant recovery periods or those that pose a risk of postoperative complications. Below are some of the surgeries where prehab has shown pronounced benefits:

Joint Replacements (e.g., Hip, Knee)

  • Why Prehab is Essential: Joint replacements, especially of the hip and knee, are some of the most common orthopedic surgeries. Prehab can play a pivotal role in ensuring optimal outcomes.
  • Benefits: Pre-operative strengthening exercises can improve muscle mass around the joint, providing better support post-surgery. This can lead to reduced post-operative pain, quicker recovery of mobility, and a shorter overall hospital stay. Moreover, improved joint flexibility from prehab exercises can further enhance the range of motion post-surgery.

Spinal Surgeries

  • Why Prehab is Essential: The spine is a complex structure, and surgeries involving the spinal region can be intricate. Prehab can be a critical determinant in ensuring the success of such procedures.
  • Benefits: Strengthening the core and back muscles pre-operatively can provide better support to the spine post-surgery, reducing pain and accelerating recovery. Flexibility exercises can also enhance spinal mobility, mitigating potential stiffness after the procedure. Additionally, the mental aspect of preparing for spine surgery can be daunting; prehab can provide the psychological boost patients need.

Cardiac Surgeries

  • Why Prehab is Essential: Whether it’s coronary artery bypass grafting, heart valve surgery, or other major cardiac procedures, the heart’s resilience can be a major factor in post-operative outcomes.
  • Benefits: Cardiovascular exercises in the prehab phase can optimize the heart’s function, ensuring it’s in the best possible condition before surgery. Breathing exercises can enhance lung function, which is crucial for post-surgical recovery. Nutritional guidelines can also help patients reach a healthy weight, reducing the strain on the heart during and after surgery.

Major Abdominal Surgeries

  • Why Prehab is Essential: Surgeries involving major organs like the liver, pancreas, or intestines can be extensive and demand significant recovery time.
  • Benefits: Strengthening the core muscles can provide crucial support to the abdominal region post-surgery, potentially reducing pain and aiding quicker recovery. Breathing exercises, especially diaphragmatic breathing, can be beneficial for lung function and supporting the abdominal region. Moreover, prehab can guide patients in optimal nutrition, ensuring the body has all the essential nutrients for healing post-surgery.

In conclusion, while the above surgeries are among the most common where prehab is strongly recommended, the principles of prehab can be applied to a broad spectrum of surgical procedures. By integrating prehab into the pre-operative protocol, patients are set on a path that not only optimizes surgical outcomes but also significantly enhances the postoperative quality of life.

Prehab Exercises and Approaches

The essence of prehabilitation (prehab) lies in its bespoke design, tailored to suit the unique requirements of each patient. The goal is straightforward: to fortify the body and mind, ensuring they’re primed for the challenges of surgery and the subsequent recovery. This preparation is achieved through a combination of specific exercises and approaches, each targeting different facets of the body and psyche. Let’s explore these in detail:

Strengthening Exercises to Build Muscle Mass and Endurance

  • Purpose: Strengthening exercises target specific muscle groups, enhancing their size, strength, and endurance. This ensures that the body is robust enough to withstand the rigours of surgery and aids in quicker post-operative recovery.
  • Examples: Resistance training using bands or weights, squats, lunges, push-ups, and core exercises like planks and bridges. For joint replacement candidates, targeted exercises that strengthen the muscles surrounding the joint, such as quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles, can be particularly beneficial.

Flexibility Exercises to Improve Range of Motion

  • Purpose: Flexibility exercises enhance the elasticity of muscles and tendons, allowing for improved joint mobility. This can be pivotal for patients, ensuring they retain or even enhance their range of motion post-surgery.
  • Examples: Static stretches held for a duration, dynamic stretches that involve movement, and yoga poses. For spinal surgeries, specific back and neck stretches can be particularly beneficial.

Cardiovascular Exercises to Enhance Heart and Lung Function

  • Purpose: Cardiovascular exercises boost the efficiency of the heart and lungs, ensuring they’re prepared for the physiological demands of surgery and the recovery process.
  • Examples: Walking, cycling, swimming, or using an elliptical trainer. The intensity and duration are tailored to the patient’s current fitness levels, with gradual progression.

Breathing Exercises, Especially for Those Undergoing Thoracic or Abdominal Surgeries

  • Purpose: Breathing exercises enhance lung capacity, improve oxygenation, and can also assist in managing pain and stress post-surgery.
  • Examples: Diaphragmatic breathing, where one focuses on deep breaths using the diaphragm; paced breathing, which involves controlled, rhythmic breathing; and box breathing, where inhalation, holding the breath, exhalation, and pausing are all done for equal counts.

Mental Preparation: Meditation, Visualization, and Relaxation Techniques

  • Purpose: Mental and emotional well-being is as crucial as physical health in the context of surgery. These techniques foster a positive mindset, reduce anxiety, and enable patients to visualize a successful surgical outcome and recovery.
  • Examples: Guided meditation sessions, where an instructor or audio guide directs the relaxation process; visualization exercises, where patients are encouraged to imagine a successful surgery and swift recovery; and progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and then relaxing different muscle groups to release stress.

Incorporating these exercises and approaches into a comprehensive prehab plan ensures a thorough preparation for surgery. However, working in conjunction with a healthcare provider or physiotherapist is imperative, ensuring the regimen is apt for the patient’s specific needs and health status.

Patient Testimonials & Case Studies

The efficacy of prehabilitation (prehab) is best captured through the personal experiences of those who’ve undergone the process. Real-world testimonials and case studies offer a poignant insight into the tangible benefits of prehab, validating its role in optimizing surgical outcomes. Here are a few such narratives:

Jane’s Journey with Hip Replacement

  • Background: Jane, a 65-year-old retired teacher, was scheduled for a total hip replacement due to severe osteoarthritis. Her primary concerns were the potential pain and prolonged recovery period.
  • Prehab Approach: For eight weeks leading up to the surgery, Jane underwent a targeted prehab regimen focusing on strengthening her quadriceps, hamstrings, and calf muscles. She also participated in flexibility exercises to improve her joint’s range of motion.
  • Outcome: Post-surgery, Jane was pleasantly surprised. Not only was her pain significantly less than anticipated, but she also achieved independent mobility quicker than many of her peers who hadn’t done prehab. “The exercises prepared my body and mind. I felt stronger and more resilient,” Jane remarked.

Liam’s Cardiac Surgery Preparation

  • Background: Liam, a 52-year-old with a history of heart disease, was due for coronary artery bypass grafting. He was apprehensive about the potential complications and the recovery trajectory.
  • Prehab Approach: Liam’s prehab involved cardiovascular exercises tailored to his fitness level, gradually increasing in intensity. Breathing exercises were also introduced to improve lung function.
  • Outcome: Post-operative recovery was smoother than Liam had feared. He credited prehab for his enhanced lung capacity, which reduced post-surgical breathlessness. “The cardiovascular training was a game-changer. I felt more in control of my recovery,” Liam shared.

Maya’s Mental and Physical Preparation for Major Abdominal Surgery

  • Background: Maya, a 40-year-old professional, was diagnosed with a benign abdominal tumour requiring surgical removal. The impending procedure was a source of significant stress for her.
  • Prehab Approach: Apart from strengthening and flexibility exercises, Maya’s prehab prominently featured guided meditation and visualization techniques to address her anxieties.
  • Outcome: Maya’s post-operative period was marked by her mental fortitude. She shared, “The mental preparation was as beneficial as the physical exercises. I felt grounded and mentally equipped to handle the challenges of recovery.”

Robert’s Spinal Surgery Success Story

  • Background: Robert, a 35-year-old athlete, suffered a disc herniation necessitating spinal surgery. The potential loss of mobility was a grave concern.
  • Prehab Approach: Robert’s regimen focused on core strengthening and back flexibility exercises. Mental visualization techniques were employed, where he envisioned returning to his sport.
  • Outcome: Robert’s recovery trajectory surpassed expectations. “The prehab made all the difference. I not only regained my mobility swiftly but returned to my sport within months,” Robert exclaimed.

These testimonials underscore the profound impact of prehab. It’s not just about physical readiness; it’s about instilling confidence, enhancing resilience, and equipping patients with the tools they need for a successful surgical journey and recovery.

Working with a Physiotherapist

The realm of prehabilitation (prehab) is vast, encompassing a myriad of exercises and techniques tailored for diverse surgical procedures. At its core, however, lies the individual – every person’s body, mindset, and surgical requirements are unique. While generic prehab protocols may provide general benefits, a personalized approach invariably yields optimal results. This is where the expertise of a physiotherapist becomes indispensable.

The Importance of Personalized Prehab Plans

  • Tailored to Individual Needs: Every patient has a unique health history, current physical condition, and specific surgical requirements. A physiotherapist considers these factors to design a prehab plan tailored to the individual’s needs.
  • Optimizing Outcomes: Personalized plans ensure that the exercises and techniques are most effective for that specific patient. This maximizes the benefits of prehab, setting the stage for a successful surgery and a smoother recovery.
  • Addressing Specific Concerns: Patients often have specific worries or areas of weakness that they wish to address before surgery. A physiotherapist can create a prehab regimen that targets these areas, giving the patient confidence as they head into the procedure.

How a Physiotherapist Can Guide and Ensure Safety

  • Expert Knowledge: Physiotherapists possess an in-depth understanding of the human musculoskeletal system, movement mechanics, and exercise science. They know what exercises are beneficial for particular surgeries and how they should be correctly performed.
  • Hands-On Assistance: In a prehab session, a physiotherapist can provide hands-on guidance, ensuring that the patient’s posture and movement during exercises are correct. This minimizes the risk of injury and maximizes the exercise’s effectiveness.
  • Progress Monitoring: Over the course of the prehab period, the physiotherapist can monitor the patient’s progress, adjusting the plan as needed. This dynamic approach ensures that the patient continues to benefit from the regimen throughout the prehab journey.
  • Safety Protocols: A physiotherapist is trained to recognize when an exercise might not be suitable for a patient or when it’s causing discomfort. They can modify the exercise or introduce alternatives, ensuring safety and comfort at all times.
  • Educative Role: Apart from guiding exercises, physiotherapists also educate patients about the rationale behind each activity, the expected outcomes, and any potential precautions to be aware of. This knowledge empowers patients, making them active participants in their prehab journey.

In conclusion, while the concept of prehab is powerful, its execution is paramount. Working with a physiotherapist ensures that the prehab process is scientific, safe, and specific to the patient’s needs. It transforms prehab from a generic exercise regimen into a potent, personalized toolkit, preparing patients for the challenges of surgery and the road to recovery.

Conclusion: A Proactive Approach to Surgery and Potential Prevention

The power of preparation cannot be underestimated, especially when facing the prospect of surgery. The concept of prehabilitation underscores the value of strengthening and conditioning the body before a surgical procedure. But there’s another dimension to prehab that’s increasingly coming into focus: its potential to avert surgery altogether in certain cases.

For some individuals, especially those with conditions that are borderline surgical cases, consistent physiotherapy-led prehab can lead to significant improvements in function and pain levels. Such enhancements may sometimes negate the immediate need for surgery or even eliminate the necessity entirely. It is not uncommon to hear stories of patients who, after committing to rigorous prehab regimens, experienced sufficient recovery to opt-out of previously scheduled surgeries.

That’s not to say that prehab is a one-size-fits-all alternative to surgical interventions. Still, it emphasizes the importance of exploring all therapeutic avenues before committing to a surgical route. For those for whom surgery remains inevitable, prehab ensures they face the operating table in the best possible physical and mental shape, often leading to faster recoveries and better post-surgical outcomes.

For anyone anticipating surgery, it’s imperative to consult with healthcare providers about the potential benefits of prehab. Whether it serves as a bridge to surgery, delays the procedure, or occasionally negates the need for it altogether, prehabilitation represents a proactive approach to healthcare that places the patient’s overall well-being at the forefront.


Physiotherapy plays a pivotal role in prehabilitation. Here are some key publications that address the interplay between prehab and physiotherapy:

Beard, D. J., Harris, K., Dawson, J., Doll, H., Murray, D. W., Carr, A. J., & Price, A. J. (2015). Meaningful changes for the Oxford hip and knee scores after joint replacement surgery. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 68(1), 73-79.

  • This article delves into the impact of physiotherapy-led prehab on the outcomes of joint replacement surgeries.

Gocen, Z., Senbursa, G., & Baltaci, G. (2004). The effects of prehabilitation on shoulder isokinetic muscle strength and postoperative pain in patients who undergo arthroscopic shoulder surgery. Isokinetics and Exercise Science, 12(3), 179-183.

  • A focused look at shoulder surgeries and how prehabilitation interventions led by physiotherapists can influence outcomes.

Rooks, D. S., Huang, J., Bierbaum, B. E., Bolus, S. A., Rubano, J., Connolly, C. E., … & Li, G. (2006). Effect of preoperative exercise on measures of functional status in men and women undergoing total hip and knee arthroplasty. Arthritis Care & Research: Official Journal of the American College of Rheumatology, 55(5), 700-708.

  • A comprehensive study on how preoperative physiotherapy exercises can influence functional outcomes post-surgery.

Nelson, M. E., Rejeski, W. J., Blair, S. N., Duncan, P. W., Judge, J. O., King, A. C., … & Castaneda-Sceppa, C. (2007). Physical activity and public health in older adults: recommendation from the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Heart Association. Circulation, 116(9), 1094.

  • This publication, though broader, underscores the importance of physical activity (a core component of physio-led prehab) in enhancing overall health, especially in older adults.

Hulzebos, E. H. J., Helders, P. J. M., Favié, N. J., De Bie, R. A., Brutel de la Riviere, A., & Van Meeteren, N. L. U. (2006). Preoperative intensive inspiratory muscle training to prevent postoperative pulmonary complications in high-risk patients undergoing CABG surgery: a randomized clinical trial. Jama, 296(15), 1851-1857.

  • Highlighting the role of physiotherapy in preoperative training for patients undergoing cardiac surgeries.

Valkenet, K., van de Port, I. G., Dronkers, J. J., de Vries, W. R., Lindeman, E., & Backx, F. J. (2011). The effects of preoperative exercise therapy on postoperative outcome: a systematic review. Clinical Rehabilitation, 25(2), 99-111.

  • A systematic review that delves into the impact of preoperative physiotherapy on various surgical outcomes.

Snowden, C. P., Prentis, J., Anderson, H. L., Roberts, D. R., Randles, D., Renton, M., & Manas, D. M. (2012). Submaximal cardiopulmonary exercise testing predicts complications and hospital length of stay in patients undergoing major elective surgery. Annals of Surgery, 255(3), 535-541.

  • An exploration of how physiotherapy-led cardiopulmonary exercises before surgery can predict postoperative outcomes.

You can access these publications via PubMed, Google Scholar, or university library databases for a more in-depth understanding of the role of physiotherapy in rehabilitation.

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