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The Deviated Septum Experience: Diagnosis, Surgery, Recovery, and FAQ

Deviated Septum Surgery

At the end of February, I noticed I couldn’t breathe properly through my left nostril. I went to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist and learned that, growing up, I’d broken my nose, resulting in a deviated septum. This is when the bone between your nostrils becomes crooked, restricting airflow. Many people have deviated septums but aren’t noticeably affected by them. I was one of the exceptions, with two doctors referring to the damage as severe.

To fix a deviated septum, surgery is required. I had this surgery in early April and, prior to that, had been searching for people’s experiences to get an idea of what to expect. I found some blog posts and YouTube videos, but nothing comprehensive, and that’s why I’m writing this post — to help people with deviated septums get an idea of what to expect from the process.

The post itself should answer most people’s questions but, if you have anything to ask, feel free to leave comments below.

Symptoms

There’s a lot of problems that can come from having a deviated septum but these are the most notable ones:

  • You become tired easily. It’s a source of that constant, sluggish feeling, and it’s especially noticeable when you’re doing anything physical. (My deviated septum now explains why I could sprint quickly but could never even begin to run a long distance.)
  • Your sense of taste and smell are diminished. I haven’t noticed big improvements in taste but smells are more intense than they’ve ever been. This is great for smelling the salty air by the beach. It’s not quite as great when a garbage truck drives by.
  • Your sleep suffers a lot. Without proper airflow, you’ll snore and suffer from sleep apnea, and you’ll wake up feeling groggy all of the time. You spend one third of your life sleeping and, if you don’t wake up refreshed, it’s going to wear you down.

(I’d argue that sleep is only one step down from water in things we need to survive so, if you’re sleeping poorly, that alone is worth the time and effort required of the surgery.)

The blocked nose that results from a deviated septum can also cause mouth breathing, which in itself comes with a range of nasty symptoms, from gingivitis to physically changing the shape of your face, as shown here:

Mouth Breathing The Deviated Septum Experience: Diagnosis, Surgery, Recovery, and FAQ

These girls are twins. The right is a mouth breather.

Diagnosis

Like I said before, deviated septums are common. Half-decent specialists will find them completely unremarkable and easy to diagnose. I saw two specialists and they both identified the problem in the same way:

  1. Seated me in a reclining chair.
  2. Sprayed a local anaesthetic into my nostrils. It ran down the back of my throat and tasted terrible.
  3. Shoved a camera into my nostrils to take a look around.

It’s a mildly uncomfortable process but nothing to be hesitant about. My eyes watered a little and the taste of the spray hung around for a while but there was no outright pain.

5 Things To Know About Pre-Surgery

Compared to most surgeries, there shouldn’t be much stress involved in this one. My friends and family were more worried than I was. There are a few things to keep in mind before heading into surgery though (most of which will be repeated by your doctor anyway):

  1. For two weeks prior, 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 things after surgery.)
  2. You’ll need to take 1–3 weeks off work to recover. You’ll probably feel fine after one week but, if you’re employed, try to get as much time off as possible. The extra rest will help.
  3. Buy a Neti Pot. These are useful for anyone’s health but you’ll be needing it to clear out mucus and dried blood from your nose. They’re gross to use but wondefully satisfying.
  4. Stock up your fridge with stuff to eat. I found softer foods like yoghurt easier to handle. Moving my mouth too much hurt my nose so solid foods were more difficult to manage.
  5. Prepare for boredom. You can’t do a whole lot after surgery so podcasts, movies, and any other passive entertainment will make the time pass a little faster.

Your nose will also feel extremely blocked for the first week after surgery, resulting in some hardcore mouth breathing while you sleep. This will cause a painful sore throat, so any sore throat remedies will be a worthwhile addition to your arsenal. Personally, I’ve found Olive Leaf Oral Spray to be very effective.

10 Things To Know About Post-Surgery

There’s not much to say about the surgery itself. I went to the hospital, put on a gown, lay in a bed, was wheeled into the surgery room, and the anaesthetist put me to sleep in a second. I woke up cold and with foggy thoughts but the nurses put extra blankets on me and I soon came back to my senses.

The interesting thing happen once the surgery’s over, so keep in mind that:

  1. Your throat will be sore. Immediately after the surgery, this is because of the anaesthetic. You will, however, be allowed to take mild pain killers.
  2. You can stay overnight at the hospital. This costs more but I found it comforting to know that nurses were nearby. I didn’t need any of their help in the end though.
  3. Your nose will bleed. Don’t be alarmed. It’s normal. Have an ice pack handy and place it below your nose to stop the blood from flowing. If it keeps bleeding for minutes at a time, call your doctor.
  4. You’ll have foam packing in your nostrils. This will help absorb some blood immediately after the surgery and is usually removed within 12–48 hours. You’ll feel some relief once the packing is out.
  5. You might have plastic splints in your nostrils. These help the septum heal properly. If present, they’ll be removed after one week and, once they’re removed, your breathing will feel incredible straight away.
  6. Your sleep will suck. To solve this, I forced myself to remain awake for as long as possible so I was simply exhausted when it came time to sleep. Keep your head elevated with a couple of pillows while sleeping.
  7. Showering is tricky. You shouldn’t get warm water on your head since that’ll stimulate blood flow (and we don’t want more blood out of our nose). Either have cold showers or just wash your body.
  8. Nasal sprays will provide mild relief. The doctor may provide one of these. It’s not much but a saline, non-medicated spray can make breathing a little easier during the first week.
  9. Neti Pots will provide the most relief. I didn’t feel comfortable using one for the first week but, once my splints were out, using the Neti Pot cleared out a ton of gunk and never fails to improve my breathing.
  10. Headaches are inevitable. I had a few myself and they were terrible. I wish I had comforting words to offer but, for as long as I felt the pain, all I did was fantasise about being fully recovered.
  11. Painkillers are your friend. I was taking the maximum dosage allowed — eight per day — and, while they didn’t clear up all of the pain, they helped keep me sane. Just don’t take ones that thin the blood.

But if all of this sounds scary, fear not. Everyone recovers differently and, based on what I’ve read, plenty of people have had easier recoveries than I did. And, either way, the struggles were well worth it.

Tracking My Sleep Quality with SleepCycle

In the weeks leading up to surgery, I downloaded SleepCycle on my iPhone to track the quality of my sleep. After a week’s worth of tracking, my sleep quality bounced between 50–70% on average (with a peak of just under 80%). Is this data incredibly accurate? I’m not sure but it doesn’t matter because I wasn’t worried about absolute data. I only cared about whether or not the numbers were higher after the surgery.

Here’s the chart for the days I tracked:

SleepCycle Results 500x282 The Deviated Septum Experience: Diagnosis, Surgery, Recovery, and FAQ

So you can see there was a big difference after surgery (and specifically, after getting the splints out). I went from not scoring above 80% to scoring 90% on my first night of post-surgery tracking, then 94% the night after. This meant:

  • I was falling to sleep quicker.
  • I was waking up less frequently.
  • I slept for longer overall.

Also, for the first time in my life, I was able to sleep on my back in perfect comfort. Previously, I could only sleep in very precise positions. I didn’t even “get” how people slept in other ways. (Now I just need to do some research in what’s actually the best way to sleep.)

Conclusion

It’s been a month since surgery and, although it can take months to feel the full effects, I feel capable of answering the most important question:

“Was the surgery worth it?”

And my answer is simply, “Yes.” Absolutely, positively, yes. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in recent memory and, if your breathing is affected by a deviated septum, I can easily recommend the surgery.

The first week of recovery had a few low-points but, since then, I’m breathing better, sleeping better, and smelling better, and the differences are dramatic. This wasn’t an incremental improvement. This was a big change in a short period of time that will surely have long-lasting effects. I have no regrets.

8 comments… add one

  • Atisha Ribeiro May 2, 2014, 8:48 am

    Although I don’t think I have a deviated-septum still interesting to read :)
    Glad that it helped you

  • Al May 3, 2014, 4:00 am

    I have a sigmoid shaped deviated septum, snore, etc. and turbinates in my right nostril, so one side of my nose is often congested. I’ve been told that I should have the same surgery that you had.

    I was basically warned that it was very painful, especially during recovery, and, as an “optional” surgery, that pretty much put me off doing it was a 42 year old guy. How bad did you really find the recovery to be? How painful was the procedure day of, etc? Was it done under a local or a general? (The former can make it a bit psychologically distressing as you’re awake and listening to them working away!)

    • David Turnbull May 3, 2014, 12:02 pm

      Honestly, the pain was never more than uncomfortable for me. I was under a general anaesthetic during surgery itself and, during recovery, the pain killers I was taking meant I just felt like I had a bad flu — blocked nose, headache, etc. Maybe go into the surgery expecting it to be rough but I’m extremely glad I got the surgery and it’s only a week after surgery that’s particularly rough. Once I had the splints removed from my nose, it was just a matter of getting plenty of rest and cleaning out my nose regularly.

      • Al May 4, 2014, 4:08 am

        Thanks. Something to consider then.

  • Jeremy May 6, 2014, 10:36 am

    I sure i might have a deviated septum. In my right nostril i have perfect airflow, then on my left barely any at all. My sleep has been pretty horrible in the last 5 years or so. I’ll try to see my doctor soon so i can discuss this with him and she what he thinks.

  • Sanji May 13, 2014, 1:22 pm

    Wow my Mom just had surgery for her deviated septum back in March due to constant headaches and migraines. She seems to be doing much better now-glad you’re feeling better too. ^_^

  • Leon Fletcher May 16, 2014, 9:52 am

    I wonder if I have this, I remember when I was really young, about three or four, one of our family friend’s son head butted me right on the top of the bridge of my nose, and I’ve also received many balls from different sports hit the exact place (must be a magnet for impact or something haha) which has made my nose sort of crooked, kinda like a Roman nose. My sense of smell has never been great though every once in a while it does temporarily strengthen.

    What I do have though, is a crossbite and my top jaw being smaller than it should, which means I am going through surgery next year or the year after which will break down my entire jaw and reconstruct it… YAY… though if I have to be honest… kinda excited for the surgery hehe

  • Ben June 12, 2014, 11:09 pm

    Yeahp I had the same kind of op in 2010. Adenoids taken out too, as well as my turbinates shaved. I remember the bandage started smelling like bacon after they took the gauze out.

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