Flying after Orthopaedic Surgery
Orthopaedic surgery will impact your physical and psychological ability to travel comfortably by plane.
Surgery will impact your ability to transit the airport, tolerate turbulence and sit comfortably in a chair for the required duration of the flight. A broken bone will significantly impact your ability to tolerate turbulence. The following factors should be considered and understood BEFORE choosing to book or board your flight.
Flying after orthopaedic surgery
As a rough guide, before flying, you should allow:
- 1-2 days after arthroscopic (key-hole) surgery
- 1-2 days after a plaster cast has been applied. NB. If both your legs are in plaster, it is unlikely that you will be able to fly. Contact your travel operator or airline for advice.
- 4-5 days after simple, open surgery (i.e. wrist or hand surgery)
- 14 days for more complicated open surgery (i.e. shoulder joint replacement surgery)
- 14 days after surgery to stabilise a fracture (broken bone)
- 3 months – total hip replacement (hip precautions minimise the risk of hip dislocation in the first 6 weeks after surgery & cannot be met in standard aeroplane seats)
Please note – surgery &/or a broken bone will also affect where you can sit on a plane and your ability to tolerate turbulence. These should be considered BEFORE you book your flight and board the plane.
Dr James McLean has provided these recommendations as a rough guide. Please keep in mind that this material is a reference guide only and your recovery may be impacted by choosing to fly in the immediate post-operative period or with a fracture (broken bone).
Flying after other medical procedures
Restrictions may also apply to flying with other medical conditions.
Some general guidelines:
- Abdominal (tummy) surgery – 4-5 days and 10 days for more complicated abdominal surgery
- Brain or neurosurgery – 6 weeks
- Cataract or corneal laser surgery – 1-2 days and 10 days for more complicated eye surgery
- Chest surgery (including coronary bypass graft) – 10 days, provided there have not been any complications
- Colonoscopy – 1 day provided there have not been any complications
- Lung surgery – 3 months
- Heart attack – 7-10 days provided there have not been any complications
- Heart failure – Most people who have heart failure can still fly provided that the condition is stable and well-controlled with treatment.
- Pacemaker – People who have had a pacemaker or an implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) fitted may travel without problems once they are medically stable.
- Retinal detachment – 6 weeks
- Carpal Tunnel – Read our guide to flying after carpal tunnel surgery.
Things to check before you fly
If you’ve had any kind of major surgery, ask Dr McLean to clarify your restrictions and any help you may require prior to booking your flight.
Airline – Each airline has its own regulations about flying after surgery. Check with your airline before you fly, particularly if you’ve had complex surgery. Also, check the hand luggage restrictions with your airline. No airline will not allow you to sit in an emergency seat. You may have to purchase an extra seat (or upgraded seat) if you cannot sit normally (i.e. cannot bend your knee or have a bulky sling on).
Additional information regarding flying after surgery can be found through individual airlines:
Completing a clearance for flying form is not a part of your routine care – a small, additional charge applies when requesting this paperwork to be completed by Dr McLean.
General advice - Before you fly
- Pack well in advance.
- Get plenty of sleep the night before your flight.
- Wear loose, comfortable clothing on the plane.
- Check the hand luggage restrictions with your airline.
- If you have children, bring toys, games and books in your hand luggage to entertain them during the flight.
- If you have a history of travel sickness or are taking medications that may cause side effects such as nausea or vomiting, speak to your pharmacist about the medication you can buy over the counter in anticipation of your flight.
- If you think you are at risk of developing deep vein thrombosis(DVT), see your GP before you travel. They may recommend wearing compression stockings during your flight or recommend a blood-thinning medication.
- Plan your route to the airport. Book train or bus tickets, or car parking. Check the travel news before you leave and allow plenty of time to get to the airport.
General advice - During your flight
Drink plenty of fluids to ensure you stay well hydrated, but avoid alcohol or caffeinated drinks, such as tea, coffee or cola, because they will make you thirstier.
Wear glasses instead of contact lenses because the dry air in the aircraft cabin can irritate your eyes if you have contact lenses in.
Move around the cabin (if possible). Sitting still can increase your risk of deep venous thrombosis (DVT), so do some simple exercises as you fly. Bend and straighten your legs, press the balls of your feet down hard against the floor, and walk around the cabin when you can. Avoid taking sleeping pills, as these can put you into a deep sleep, so you will not be able to move for a long time.
To help prevent jet lag, change your watch to your new time zone when you board the plane, and try to get some sleep during the flight.
Travelling with your medicines
Carry your medication in your hand luggage with a copy of your prescription (airline regulations permitting – check these prior to travel).
Always carry medicines and medical equipment (needles, syringes and so on) in their original, correctly-labelled packages.
Pack a spare supply of medication in your suitcase or hold luggage (along with another copy of your prescription) in case you lose your hand luggage. Check that the expiry dates of your medicines will be valid for the duration of your visit abroad.
Some medicines need to be kept at room temperature (below 25ºC) or stored in the fridge. If you are travelling to a warm country, get advice from your pharmacist about storing your medicine. For example, to keep your medicine at the right temperature, you may need to store it using:
- A thermos flask
- An ice pack
- A cool bag
- An insulated pouch
Some prescribed medicines are controlled under the Misuse of Drugs legislation.
They are sometimes referred to as controlled drugs. This means that extra legal controls apply to these medicines with regard to safekeeping, supply and import/export. Examples of controlled medicines include:
- Anti-anxiety medicines (i.e. bendodiazepines)
- Strong painkillers (i.e. oxycodone)
Taking controlled medicines abroad
If you take your prescribed controlled medicines abroad, you should carry them:
- In the original, correctly labelled packaging
- In your hand luggage (airline regulations permitting)
If you are planning to be abroad for longer than 6 weeks, you should also take a letter from your GP giving the information below:
- Your name and address
- Your date of birth
- The dates you are departing and returning
- Your planned travel itinerary
The letter should also list the controlled medicines that you are carrying, and for each medicine it should show:
- The dosage
- The total amount you are carrying
Other than medication such as the contraceptive pill, GPs do not usually prescribe more than three months of medication at one time. Patients usually have to get further supplies in the country they are staying in. Your GP will decide this based on the medication and the condition being treated.
Please be advised that your GP Clinic may charge you for writing such a letter, as GPs are not obliged to provide this service by the Department of Health.
Risk of Deep Venous Thrombosis (DVT)
If you are flying after recent surgery, especially on the hips or knees, you are at an increased risk of DVT.
DVT is a blood clot in one of the deep veins in your body, usually in your legs.
Other factors may also increase your risk of DVT, including if you:
- Have had DVT before
- Have had blood clots already
- Have a family history of blood clots
- Are overweight or obese
- Are pregnant
It is important to note that the absolute risk of developing a travel-related DVT is low, even if you are classed as moderate to high risk.
If you are at high risk of DVT, speak to your GP before flying. They may recommend that you delay your trip.
You can take steps to reduce your risk of DVT, such as drinking plenty of water and moving around on the plane.
For more information
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