What is craniotomy?

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Craniotomy: Overview

A craniotomy is surgery to open your skull to treat a problem in your brain. It can be done for many reasons. For example, you may need a craniotomy if your brain or blood vessels are damaged. Or you may need one if you have a tumor or an infection in your brain.

Part of your head may be shaved. The doctor uses special tools to make cuts (incisions) through your scalp and skull. The doctor then looks at the inside of your skull to treat the problem. The doctor closes the skull and incisions.

You may get medicine so you will be asleep during the surgery. Or you may be awake, but you will not feel pain. Sometimes a person must be awake during surgery so the doctor can test how well the brain is working.

Your doctor will help you know how long the surgery will last and what to expect. Afterward, you may stay in the hospital for a few days to a week or more. You may need a month or two to recover. Your recovery may take longer if you have weak areas of your body or have problems talking or seeing. How fully you recover depends on why you had the surgery and how well you do after your surgery.

How can you care for yourself after a craniotomy?


  • Rest when you feel tired. It is normal to want to sleep during the day. It is a good idea to plan to take a nap every day. Getting enough sleep will help you recover.
  • It may help to not lie flat. This may help reduce swelling of the eyes or face.
  • After lying down, bring your head up slowly. This can prevent headaches or dizziness.
  • Try to walk each day. Start by walking a little more than you did the day before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk. Walking boosts blood flow and helps prevent pneumonia and constipation.
  • Avoid heavy lifting until your doctor says it is okay.
  • Do not drive until your doctor says it is okay.
  • Ask your doctor if it is safe for you to travel by plane.
  • Avoid risky activities, such as climbing a ladder, until your doctor says it is okay.


  • You can eat your normal diet. If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt.
  • Follow your doctor's orders about how much fluid you should drink after surgery.
  • Do not drink alcohol until your doctor says it is okay.
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fiber supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.


  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. Your doctor will also give you instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you stopped taking aspirin or some other blood thinner, your doctor will tell you when to start taking it again.
  • Be safe with medicines. Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • If you get medicines to prevent seizures, take them exactly as directed.

Incision care

  • If you have strips of tape on the incisions, leave the tape on for a week or until it falls off.
  • Keep the area clean and dry. Follow your doctor's instructions on when to change the bandages.
  • After your doctor says it is okay to shower or bathe, gently wash the surgery area with warm, soapy water and pat it dry.
  • Keep hair products, such as hair dye, away from the incisions. Do not dye or color your hair until your doctor says it is okay.


  • Avoid strenuous activities, such as bicycle riding, jogging, weight lifting, swimming, or aerobic exercise, until your doctor says it is okay.
  • Start out slowly. Ease back in to activities and exercise.
  • Do not play any rough or contact sports until your doctor says it is okay.


  • For the first 1 or 2 days, you can use ice to reduce pain, swelling, and itching. Put ice or a cold pack on your head for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.

How do you prepare for a craniotomy?

Surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for surgery.

Preparing for surgery

  • Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.
  • Understand exactly what surgery is planned, along with the risks, benefits, and other options.
  • Tell your doctor ALL the medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies you take. Some may increase the risk of problems during your surgery. Your doctor will tell you if you should stop taking any of them before the surgery and how soon to do it.
  • If you take a medicine that prevents blood clots, your doctor may tell you to stop taking it before your surgery. Or your doctor may tell you to keep taking it. (These medicines include aspirin and other blood thinners.) Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Make sure your doctor and the hospital have a copy of your advance directive. If you don’t have one, you may want to prepare one. It lets others know your health care wishes. It’s a good thing to have before any type of surgery or procedure.

After craniotomy: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You have sudden chest pain and shortness of breath, or you cough up blood.
  • It is hard to think, move, speak, or see.
  • Your body is jerking or shaking.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have trouble thinking clearly.
  • You have a fever with a stiff neck or a severe headache.
  • Your incision comes open.
  • You have signs of infection, such as:
    • Increased pain, swelling, warmth, or redness.
    • Red streaks leading from the incision.
    • Pus draining from the incision.
    • Swollen lymph nodes in your neck, armpits, or groin.
    • A fever.
  • You have any sudden vision changes.
  • You have new or worse headaches.
  • You fall and hit your head.
  • You are sleeping more than you are awake.
  • You have pain that does not get better after you take pain medicine.
  • You have a fever over 100°F.
  • You have a headache and you throw up.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

After a craniotomy: Overview

A craniotomy is surgery to open your skull to treat a problem in your brain. It can be done for many reasons. For example, you may need this surgery if your brain or blood vessels are damaged or if you have a tumor or an infection in your brain.

You will probably feel very tired for several weeks after surgery. You may also have headaches or problems concentrating. It can take a month or two to recover from surgery.

Your cuts (incisions) may be sore after surgery. You may also have numbness and shooting pains near your wound. And you may have swelling and bruising around your eyes. As your wound starts to heal, it may begin to itch. Medicines and ice packs can help with headaches, pain, swelling, and itching.

The stitches or staples that hold your incisions together may go away on their own or will be removed in 7 to 10 days. This depends on the type of stitches the doctor uses.

If your head was shaved, you may want to wear hats or scarves on your head until your hair grows back.

You may need to go to a short-term rehabilitation center after you leave the hospital. This can help you learn to do the tasks you need to do after you go home.

What happens on the day of your craniotomy?

  • Follow the instructions exactly about when to stop eating and drinking. If you don't, your surgery may be canceled. If your doctor told you to take your medicines on the day of surgery, take them with only a sip of water.
  • Take a bath or shower before you come in for your surgery. Do not apply lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or nail polish.
  • Do not shave the surgical site yourself.
  • Take off all jewelry and piercings. And take out contact lenses, if you wear them.

At the hospital or surgery center

  • Bring a picture ID.
  • The area for surgery is often marked to make sure there are no errors.
  • You will be kept comfortable and safe by your anesthesia provider. The anesthesia may make you sleep. Or it may just numb the area being worked on.
  • The surgery can take 30 minutes to 12 hours.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.