Air Travel after Foot or Ankle Surgery

How long should I wait to fly after having surgery on my foot or ankle?

Of course the first person you should ask about air travel after foot or ankle surgery is your experienced, knowledgeable foot and ankle orthopedic surgeon. The doctor may or may not give you permission to fly, depending on the type of surgery you have undergone and how long ago the operation took place. The more recently the surgery was performed, and the more complicated the procedure was, the more likely your doctor is to recommend that you postpone your trip.

Blood Clots: a Major Cause for Concern

Blood clots are a risk for anyone on a flight that lasts longer than 4 hours. Since surgery of any kind, but particularly surgery that takes place below the waist, increases the risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), patients recovering from foot or ankle surgery are especially at risk. The reason a DVT is dangerous is that is can break off, travel through the bloodstream and lodge in one of the lungs, creating a blockage known as a pulmonary embolism. In most cases, surgeons who perform surgery on your feet or ankles advise that you refrain from air travel for at least 4 weeks after the operation.

How Air Travel Increases the Risk of DVTs

Air travel increases the risk of clotting for several reasons:

  • Blood clots are linked to immobility
  • Being not only sedentary, but scrunched tightly into an airplane seat exacerbates the risks
  • Dehydration promotes clotting — some passengers drink less on planes to avoid the need to urinate, while others may drink caffeinated or alcoholic beverages which result in dehydration
  • The low humidity on planes increases the risk of dehydration

Other Risk Factors for DVTs

There are other factors that raise your risk of developing blood clots during travel. These include:

  • Obesity
  • Being over 6’2″ or under 5’2″
  • Using oral contraceptives
  • Having a genetic blood disorder

When Air Travel Is Unavoidable

If you have had recent foot or ankle surgery and are unable to avoid air travel, take the following tips to heart:

  1. Move about as much as possible during the flight. Even though it’s inconvenient, stand, stretch, and walk up and down the aisles
  2. Exercise your calf muscles with up and down movements of the feet.
  3. If possible, wear compression hose to increase circulation in your lower legs and feet.
  4. Avoid drinking caffeinated or alcoholic beverages during the flight.
  5. Stay hydrated with plain water, even if it means more trips to the bathroom.

In some situations, your doctor may feel comfortable prescribing a blood thinner to protect you from developing a dangerous blood clot as a result of the flight, but this is not always possible.