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A Paleo Physician’s Journey through Major Surgery

By The Paleo Diet Team
October 23, 2014
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A Paleo Physician’s Journey through Major Surgery

Originally Published in Practical Evolutionary Health

At age 46 I had a total hip arthroplasty (THA). Metal and plastic components replaced my hip joint (the stem, ball and socket of the hip). I am convinced that if I had adopted a Paleo lifestyle at age twenty instead of age 58 I would have not needed that surgery. But more about that another time.

On Monday I underwent a revision of that surgery to replace some components, scrape out bad bone, remove inflamed joint lining, flush out plastic debris, and place some bone grafts into areas where bone cysts had formed. The surgery was necessary because the plastic debris from my first artificial joint had stimulated my immune system in a way that caused my macrophages (white blood cells) and osteoclasts (a special kind of bone cell) to start destroying the bone around my hip socket. This process is called osteolysis.

Our immune cells evolved to destroy and consume bacteria and viruses, not plastic powder. So as the plastic liner of my hip prosthesis wore down, the plastic debris provided a constant source of inflammation, stimulating my immune system to get rid of a foreign invader. The bone around my prosthesis got caught in friendly fire. This problem does not seem to occur since a newer form of plastic, having only 10% the wear rate of the old plastic has been introduced. Time will tell if that proves to be true.

To prepare for surgery I reviewed my Paleo behavior with respect to diet, sleep, exercise, stress reduction and outdoor time. My exercise routine was already very reasonable. I had been strictly avoiding grains (except for occasional white rice) and legumes but did include some fermented dairy (kefir and cheese) and wine. So I eliminated all dairy and all alcohol. Sleep has always been an issue because as a physician I take call and sometimes work through the night with emergency cases.

My last call night was 3 weeks before surgery and I was up all night. The next day I flew to NJ for two important events (a reunion and a wedding) both of which were definitely not Paleo environments. A flight cancellation required more sleep deprivation in order to reach my first event on time. That sleep deprivation in combination with the changes in time zone disrupted my circadian rhythm so upon returning home two weeks before surgery I knew I had to play catch-up to be ready for surgery. I avoided alcohol except for a few drinks at my brother’s wedding and violated the wheat prohibition once with a piece of wedding cake.

When I returned to California I was 6 pounds heavier and jet lagged. I promptly got an upper respiratory infection (probably acquired on my flight home) which started in my throat and nose and went to my lungs.

So now I am jet-lagged and infected just two weeks from surgery. Not a good situation.

Thereafter I was strictly Paleo in diet, sleep, and stress reduction (yoga and meditation) but had to limit exercise to yoga and walking in order to fight the infection and prepare for surgery. I spent as much time walking outdoors as was feasible and focused on eight hours sleep each night. After one week I was beating the URI so I decided to do two 30 minute sessions of resistance training during the last week before surgery.

By the day of surgery the URI was completely cleared and I was down 6 pounds to my baseline.

I self-administered my own pre-operative medication protocol (designed to mitigate post-operative pain) and received a spinal anesthetic from my friend and colleague using a combination of local anesthetic and a small dose of spinal morphine. The latter can provide pain reduction for up to 24 hours after surgery.

So here is the amazing result.

5 hours after surgery I walked without pain using a walker bearing full weight on the surgical leg. I walked again that evening without pain. I knew this was the honeymoon period because the spinal morphine was still protecting me.

The next morning the honeymoon was over but I was still able to walk with full weight bearing without any pain medications and subsequently walked several times up and down the hospital halls during the first three post-operative days. Although I had pain with movement I had no pain at rest.

On the day after surgery my CRP (C reactive protein) was 0.2 mg/dl. CRP is a measure of inflammation in the body. Normal range is zero to 0.5. I was elated. One day after a major traumatic event which typically initiates an inflammatory cascade, I did not have excess inflammation throughout my body as measured by CRP. My WBC (white blood cell count) was also normal.

A paleo lifestyle will not prevent pain after surgery but being in a low inflammatory state before surgery certainly helped with recovery.

My walking ability immediately after surgery and during the next three days astounded the physical therapists and nurses. They all stated I had set records.

My colleagues in the Anesthesia Department could not believe that I received no opiate or NSAID pain medications during my recovery. It is now five days since surgery. I have taken no opiate pain killers or NSAIDs except for low dose aspirin (starting yesterday) to help prevent blood clots

I avoided NSAIDs because NSAIDs increase intestinal permeability (which leads to an inflammatory response) and also because NSAIDs increase risk of cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke, blood clots in the legs which can travel to the lungs and cause death in severe cases)

I can attribute my success to many factors including an excellent anesthetic, a great surgeon, an optimal pre-operative medication protocol, the superb nursing and therapy staffs and the Paleo lifestyle. In preparing for surgery I was able to make an effective come back from a stressful travel week, two successive nights of sleep deprivation and an upper respiratory infection only because of the Paleo approach.

As I walked my laps around the orthopedic unit I noticed that most patients spent the entire day in bed except for a few laps each day with PT. Many factors contribute to that problem. Our PT department is very aggressive but post-operative pain, obesity, inflammatory diets and sedentary lifestyles all contribute to slow recovery. The hospital menu is highly inflammatory thick with processed-carbohydrates, pro-inflammatory grains, legumes, and refined vegetable oils, and yes, even some trans fats. A strictly Paleo menu would be very helpful. But most of those patients have been living the Standard American Lifestyle (inflammatory diet, chronic sleep deprivation, inadequate exercise, poor stress management, etc.) for a lifetime prior to surgery and it can take months to years of a Paleo lifestyle to mitigate a lifetime of self-abuse. Even then some damage is permanent (like my hip).

I ate the hospital’s fresh fruit, vegetables and wild seafood, the rest was delivered from home by my loving spouse. Kathie is my anchor in the storm and my guiding light when I become lost. The importance of love and human physical contact is well recognized by the Paleo community so it is appropriate that I end with an expression of gratitude to Kathie and the host of friends who visited me during recovery. Hugs and kisses are as important as an anti-inflammatory diet.

Live clean and prosper.

Bob Hansen M.D.

Bob Hansen, M.D. is a practicing physician, board certified in Anesthesiology and Internal Medicine with a Certificate of Special Qualifications in Critical Care. I practice pain management and anesthesiology in Redding, CA. My blogging interests include the effects of lifestyle (nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress reduction) on health and health care policy. My education includes an undergraduate degree in Mathematical Economics from Brown University, MBA in Health Care Management from Boston University, and a Doctor of Medicine from Boston University. My personal journey in seeking optimal health has lead me to discover that some advice offered by trusted private organizations and government agencies is based more on politics and economics than sound science. I hope to offer here a point of view based on science and personal experience.

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