Three years ago, I noticed that I couldn’t breathe out of my left nostril.
This feels like the sort of thing I should have noticed right away, and yet it’s a detail that had somehow alluded me for years.
How do I know the issue hadn’t recently developed?
Because, after realising the issue, I visited an Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist, and within moments of walking into his office, he asked me, “So, when did you break your nose?”
I answered, “I didn’t.”
Then he nodded. “You did,” he said, taking a closer look at my nose. “It’s crooked. A nose isn’t supposed to look like that.”
But I couldn’t have broken my nose recently, as nothing had hit me in the face that recently. I could, however, recall multiple times of getting hit in the face as a teenager while playing soccer, rugby, and baseball.
Upon further inspection, I was diagnosed with a deviated septum. This is where the bone between your nostrils deviates from its natural position, restricting airflow in one (or both) of your nostrils. Plenty of people have a deviated septum (it can be genetic) and aren’t noticeably affected by them, but the doctor was quick to label my case as “severe.”
The good news is, fixing a deviated septum isn’t complicated. It’s a very low risk endeavour. The bad news is, it does require surgery. There is no other way to return your airways to their maximum capacity.
Feeling compelled to nip this issue in the bud, I elected to have this surgery in April of 2014, and I’m happy to report that I lived to tell the tale. Prior to the surgery though, I’d been curious about other people’s experiences. What was the surgery like? Was it difficult to recover? I found some blog posts and YouTube videos that discussed the process, but nothing comprehensive. That’s why I’m writing this article: to help people with a deviated septum get an idea of what to expect from the process.
Breathing is an important part of existing, so having restricted airflow through your nostrils can be problematic.
Most notably, a deviated septum can cause:
- Poor sleep
- A reduced sense of taste and smell
- Mouth breathing
The mouth breathing in particular is a nasty side-effect, as it can cause a variety of dental problems and physically alter the structure of your face. (This could explain why I have a receding chin.)
Since all of these symptoms can stem from other sources though, the best way to self-diagnose is to block each nostril, one at a time, and breathe slowly. Do you notice that one nostril is much more difficult to breathe out of? If so, you probably have a deviated septum. In my case, I couldn’t breathe in or out of my left nostril at all. Yours might not be as severe though.
Although a deviated septum can be easy to self-diagnose, it’s always worthwhile to get a professional opinion. (You’ll have to get one anyway before opting for surgery.)
Fortunately, the diagnostic process is straight-forward enough.
I saw two specialists about the issue — the second one, Dr. Jason Roth — is the one who eventually performed the surgery, and they both identified the problem in the same way:
- Directed me to a reclining chair.
- Sprayed a local anaesthetic into my nostrils. (It ran down the back of my throat and tasted terrible.)
- Shoved a camera into my nostrils and had a look around.
It was a mildly uncomfortable process, but nothing too miserable. It was about as annoying as a dental check-up, but it was over in a matter of seconds. My eyes watered a little, and the taste of the anaesthetic hung around for a while, but there was no outright pain.
Septoplasty vs. Rhinoplasty
There are two common surgeries for the nose: the septoplasty and the rhinoplasty. To fix a deviated septum, the septoplasty is the surgery that will be of interest to you, as it’s the surgery that is conducted to straighten the nasal septum. A rhinoplasty, in contrast, is colloquially known as a “nose job,” and it’s a purely cosmetic surgery for redesigning the look of your nose.
If your deviated septum is severe, it can cause your nose to look crooked, which is why some people elect to get both surgeries at once. This does cost more overall, but costs less than getting both surgeries separately and means you only have to deal with a single recovery process. I decided not to get a rhinoplasty though, as I wasn’t too concerned about the look of my nose. I just wanted to breathe properly. Even so, it’s always worth knowing about the options that are available to you.
Preparing for Surgery
Compared to most surgeries, a septoplasty is fairly unremarkable. It’s low-risk, only lasts a couple of hours, and the recovery process isn’t particularly long or hard (in most cases).
Your surgeon will inform you of everything you need to know to prepare for your surgery, but in my experience, these were the most important points:
- For two weeks prior to your surgery, avoid anything that can thin the blood. This includes a range of medication, some non-prescription pain killers, and garlic. (You’ll also have to avoid these items after the surgery.)
- Recovery will take 1-3 weeks. If you’re employed, try to get as much time off as possible. There is, however, a decent chance that you’ll feel recovered enough to work after the first week.
- Buy a Neti Pot. These are a gross but excellent way to clean out mucus and dried blood from your nostrils, which will be necessary after your surgery. You’ll be using it a lot.
- Stock up on soft foods. Eating can be difficult after surgery, and you don’t want to arrive home from the hospital without anything suitable in the fridge, so it’s worth stocking up beforehand. Softer foods like yoghurt are ideal.
- Buy sore throat lozenges. You’ll probably do a lot of mouth breathing for the first few days after surgery, resulting in a dry, sore throat. Having some lozenges on hand should help reduce the discomfort.
- Prepare for boredom. You can’t do much during the recovery process, so downloading books, movies, and podcasts ahead of time will allow you to quickly pass the time once you’re home. It might also be a good time to binge-watch some Netflix series.
Recovering From Surgery
There’s not much to say about the surgery itself. I went to the hospital, put on a gown, lay in a bed, got wheeled into a surgery room, and fell asleep shortly after the anaesthetist asked me to count to ten. Two hours later, I woke up shivering and groggy, but after the nurses dumped some blankets on me, I soon came back to my senses and the recovery process had begun.
It’s impossible to predict how any individual person will recover ahead of time, as it depends on a variety of factors, such as severity of your septum deviation, the skill of your surgery, your age, and your pain tolerance. Overall though, I found the experience to be manageable. It wasn’t comfortable, for reasons I’ll explain a moment, but it didn’t feel worse than a standard flu.
These are my observations of what you can expect after the septoplasty:
- Your throat will be sore. This is because of the anaesthetic, but you’re allowed to take enough pain killers to reduce your suffering.
- You can stay overnight at the hospital. A lot of the time, you don’t have to do this, and one disadvantage is that it will cost more, but I found it comforting to have nurses nearby, just in case I started bleeding more than I should have. In the end though, I never needed the nurse’s assistance. I returned home the following day without incident.
- Your nose will bleed. Don’t be alarmed. This is normal. Have an ice pack handy and place it below your nose to stop the bleeding. If the bleeding continues for minutes at a time, call your doctor.
- Some blood will slide down your throat. This is gross but inevitable. Your best bet is to just swallow it. Considering how swollen and sore your face will be, trying to spit out the blood will likely hurt too much.
- You’ll have foam packing in your nostrils. These will help absorb some of the blood immediately after the surgery and will usually be removed 12-48 hours after the surgery. You’ll find it a little easier to breathe once the packing is removed.
- You might have plastic splints in your nostrils. These ensure that your septum heals properly, but they do make it difficult to breathe for as long they’re in. Once they’re removed though, which should happen roughly a week after the surgery, there’ll be nothing left to obstruct your airways and you’ll be able to feel the full effect of the surgery.
- Your sleep will suck. Elevating your head with a couple of pillows will help, but in my case, the best solution was just to stay up late, exhaust myself, and fall to sleep only when I couldn’t stand to keep my eyelids open any longer.
- Showering is tricky. This is because you’re not supposed to get warm water on your head, as that’ll stimulate more blood flow, which is something you want to avoid. As such, you’ll have to have cold showers, avoid getting your head wet, or not shower at all.
- Nasal sprays can provide mild relief. Chances are, your doctor will provide you with one of these. It never seemed to make that big of a difference though.
- Neti Pots provide the most relief. Hopefully you picked up one of these before surgery, as they do provide significant relief once the splints have been taken out. Don’t use them too early though, as they require you to pour warm water into your nostrils, which could stimulate blood flow early in the recovery process.
- Headaches are inevitable. These were almost the worst part of the recovery process (aside from trying to sleep) and there’s not much you can do to avoid the pain entirely. Whenever I got one, I just made sure to look into the future and realise that, in the grand scheme of things, the recovery process isn’t that long.
Tracking Your Sleep
Something you might want to do before getting surgery is track your current sleeping habits with a device like the Fitbit Flex 2. Alternatively, download an app like Sleep Cycle, which won’t provide data that’s as accurate, but can be useful in determining relative improvements in your sleep. This isn’t strictly necessary, but I think it’s interesting to see if, mathematically, the surgery has improved at least one aspect of your life.
In my case, for instance, my sleep quality varied between 50-78% in the days before surgery. After I recovered from surgery though, the average jumped to around 90%.
Practically, this meant I was:
- Falling asleep quicker.
- Waking up less frequently.
- Moving less in my sleep.
- Sleeping for longer.
It’s hard to quantify the exact impact that improved sleep provides, but no one would contest the point that improved sleep is always a good thing. It’s how we recover, reset, and heal, and the fact that I’ve seen a numerical boost in my ability to get some quality shut-eye has only left me more grateful that I was able to discover that I had a problem and then get it fixed.
Was It Worth It?
The short answer is, “Yes.”
After the surgeon remove the plastic splints from my nostrils, roughly a week after the surgery, I took in a big, deep breath, and felt a surprising amount of air travelling into my nose. I hadn’t breathed so clearly in as long as I could remember. Both of my nostrils were now pulling their weight.
My sleep improved, smells were more intense, and overall, I was satisfied with what the cost, time, and energy of the surgery and recovery process had gotten me.
Three years on though, there is a caveat:
I am no longer breathing as clearly through my left nostril as I was the moment the splints were taken out. I can’t pinpoint when it happened, but my left nostril has partially closed up again. This, I knew, was a possibility. I believe it has something to do with how the inside of the nostril heals, and I’m not sure it’s something that can be avoided. For some people, the benefit of the surgery will decrease over time.
However, that’s not to say the benefit will disappear.
I can still breathe through my left nostril, which is not something I could do at all before the surgery, so there was an improvement. My right nostril is doing most of the work though, so the benefit is no longer as pronounced.
In the end, I’m still glad I got the surgery. It was reasonably priced, straight-forward, and fairly easy to recover from. I’m not lusting over more surgeries, but I certainly don’t regret the time and money I’ve spent on this one.