Planning for surgery

Everyone responds differently to pain after surgery. Controlling that pain will help speed your recovery and reduce the chances of complications from developing, including blood clots.

Managing pain after surgery is a team effort between you and your doctor. While you should expect some pain, the goal is to safely reduce it so you are as comfortable as possible during your recovery.

You should start thinking about your recovery process well before your surgery. After all, being prepared is the most effective pain management strategy.

If you’re worried about pain, be sure to discuss this with your surgeon beforehand. During this discussion, your doctor will ask about any medications you’re currently taking and your past experiences with pain. This information will help them create an effective post-surgery plan.

What are pain scales and how do they help you manage pain effectively?

Pain scales allow doctors and nurses to measure how much pain you’re feeling. You'll be asked several times a day about your pain level (typically from a range of 1 to 10). Your nurse will likely want to know more specific details related to your pain before making recommendations for medication, including:

  • Where you feel pain
  • What your current pain level is (scale of 1 to 10)
  • If the pain is unbearable or manageable at this level
  • What the pain feels like (sore, sharp, constant, throbbing, stabbing, or a dull ache)

These details will help your support team give you the appropriate medication that will address where you're having the pain and how severe it feels.

How is acute pain managed after surgery?

The primary goal of managing pain after surgery is for you to awaken comfortably and experience no interruption in pain control. While discomfort should be expected, extreme pain is not normal. By using pain scales and regular check-ins, your doctor and nurses can adequately keep your pain minimal.

Post-surgical pain is usually managed with different pain medications and doses. Your surgeon may use a combination of pain treatments to lessen side effects and control your pain. Immediately after your surgery, you may be given pain medication in the following ways:

Intravenous catheter (IV)

Before your surgery, you'll likely have a catheter inserted into your hand or arm. This is used to give you fluids and different medications, including sedatives, anesthetics, antibiotics, or pain medication. Your surgeon may request that an anesthesiologist place a local anesthetic near the incision site to block pain.

Many hospitals have patient-controlled analgesia to help you manage your pain. This allows you to push a button to get a fixed dose of pain medication without having to wait for a nurse. This system won't allow you to push the button more than once in a set period of time. This reduces the risk of taking too much.

Opioid (Narcotic)

Opioid medication helps with managing pain after surgery. You may be prescribed one of these opioid medications:

At first, this medication will be injected via an IV. You'll then be prescribed an oral form of opioid pain medication to take at home. Opioids do come with several side effects, including:

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)

NSAIDs help reduce inflammation, which can worsen the pain. Some examples of common NSAIDs include:


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What to do about managing pain after surgery

After surgery, it’s important to work with your healthcare team to make your recovery as pain-free as possible. Communicate with your doctor and nurses to help them adjust your pain management plan. Always be honest about the pain you’re feeling, including how much it hurts, where it hurts, and what activity makes it better or worse.

The more specific you are the better your doctor can help you stay comfortable and recover quicker.

When to see your doctor

When managing pain after surgery, it’s important to discuss any ongoing side effects from medication with your doctors. If you’re experiencing long-term constipation, nausea, vomiting, or sleepiness, they may want to prescribe you a different pain medication or change your dosage.

Taking pain medication comes with another major concern: the risk of abuse or addiction. While the use of opioids after surgery is intended to be short-term, sometimes the body becomes dependent on the medication.

If you’re concerned about misuse of pain medication and the risk of opioid addiction, talk with your doctor. They will help answer your questions about how to properly take your medicine, minimize your dosage, and store or dispose of unused drugs.

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Medically Reviewed on 11/10/2021
Cleveland Clinic: "Pain Control After Surgery."

Mayo Clinic: "Pain medications after surgery."

Pain Physician: "Opioid complications and side effects."

University of Iowa Health Care: "Managing your pain after surgery."

Yale Medicine: "Pain Relief After Surgery."