Getting a kidney transplant gives you a new lease on life. A successful transplant gives you increased strength, stamina and energy — but while you’re recovering from surgery, you may not quite feel that way yet.
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If you’re about to undergo kidney transplant surgery, here’s what you need to know about recovery.
How long does kidney transplant recovery take?
Kidney transplant surgery itself takes about two to four hours. And then your recovery period begins.
“Most people spend about three days in the hospital after a kidney transplant,” says urologist Mohamed Eltemamy, MD. “Your medical team will want to keep a close eye on you and make sure you’re recovering well.”
Your new transplanted kidney may start working immediately, or you might need dialysis until it starts working. This could take several days or weeks.
“On average, kidney transplant recovery time is about six weeks,” Dr. Eltemamy says. “This timeline is different for everyone, though, depending on your overall health and other factors.”
Recovering from a kidney transplant
After any surgery, including a kidney transplant, it’s important to closely follow any instructions that your healthcare provider gives you.
1. Take all your medications as directed
Because your body first recognizes your new kidney as a foreign object, it will normally try to get rid of it or “reject” it. But you’ll be given medicine to prevent rejection.
“Because of years of experience, research and improved medicines that prevent rejection, kidney transplants are very successful with few complications after transplantation,” Dr. Eltemamy notes.
2. No driving for six weeks
Driving can aggravate or damage your surgical wound, so you won’t be able to get behind the wheel for at least six weeks after your transplant.
“Plan ahead so a friend or family member can help out during this time,” Dr. Eltemamy suggests. And of course, always wear your seatbelt when you’re in a moving vehicle.
3. Take it easy
Sorry, gym rats, but your body needs a little bit of a break, so avoid lifting heavy objects and strenuous physical work for at least six to eight weeks following surgery.
“You shouldn’t lift anything heavier than 20 pounds for two to three months, and nothing heavier than 40 pounds for four to six months from the date of your surgery,” Dr. Eltemamy says.
4. Start exercising … slowly and gently
Lifting may be a no-go, but in general, exercise can go a long way toward helping you heal. Your healthcare provider will recommend stretching exercises and walking, to start, and as you begin to feel better, you can add in activities like jogging, hiking, bicycling, tennis, golf, swimming and aerobics.
“All of these can help you regain your strength and you can start gradually after your incision has healed,” Dr. Eltemamy says. “But you’ll need to avoid contact sports, which can cause injury to your transplanted kidney.”
If you have concerns about any activity, talk to your healthcare provider.
5. Stay hydrated
One of the keys to a successful recovery is staying well-hydrated. You should drink plenty of water — typically 2 liters (about 68 ounces) — per day.
“It’s also a good idea to limit caffeine, which is a weak diuretic that contributes to dehydration,” Dr. Eltemamy states.
6. Don’t eat raw or undercooked foods
No rare steaks, please. Eating raw or undercooked meat is risky for anyone, but especially for people who have weakened immune systems — which is what you have after a kidney transplant.
“When you have a weakened immune system, like after a transplant, eating raw or undercooked foods — especially undercooked meat or eggs — puts you at risk for severe illness,” Dr. Eltemamy says.
7. Eat plenty of protein
Eating a well-balanced diet with a few special dietary considerations is important.
“Protein is especially helpful because it helps you build muscle and recover lost weight,” Dr. Eltemamy explains. Your provider or a dietitian can help you figure out how much protein you need.
8. Steer clear of grapefruit
There’s a chemical in grapefruit that can interfere with your body’s ability to break down or metabolize certain statin medications.
“Eating grapefruit or drinking grapefruit juice can cause a strong reaction with medications that suppress your immune system,” Dr. Eltemamy warns.
9. Don’t take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Some very common over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, including ibuprofen and naproxen, can cause kidney dysfunction. You may also want to avoid taking antihistamines and antacids.
“These medications, and other OTC drugs, can sometimes affect other drugs or change absorption,” Dr. Eltemamy notes.
Talk to your healthcare provider about the safety of these medications and possible alternatives that are safe for you to try instead.
10. Avoid certain vitamins and herbal supplements
Talk to your provider before you pop any non-prescription pills, including vitamins or supplements. They’re not all safe for use — in general, but especially after a kidney transplant.
“St. John’s wort, Schisandra and some herbal teas and other natural supplements interact with transplant medications,” Dr. Eltemamy cautions.
11. Keep your follow-up appointments
To make sure you’re healing well, it’s critical that you go to all of your follow-up appointments with your medical team.
The risks of kidney transplantation are the same as those of any surgery. “There’s the risk of bleeding, infection or breathing problems,” Dr. Eltemamy says. “You also might experience some side effects from the medications, and you could be more prone to infections since the medicine you will take after transplantation lowers your body’s ability to fight infection.”
If you experience any of the following symptoms, you should contact your healthcare provider immediately:
- A fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher (or 37.77 degrees Celsius).
- New pain or tenderness around your kidney.
- Swelling (edema).
- Flu-like symptoms, including chills, headaches, dizziness or nausea and vomiting.
- A noticeable decrease in the amount of pee (urine) you produce.
Many people lead healthy, fulfilling lives after their kidney transplant. By taking good care of yourself as you recover, you give your body the best chance of healing well — so that, soon, you can get on with living your best life.