Prepare for and Manage Post-Surgical Pain

No matter what kind of surgery you undergo, some pain is par for the course, especially if you've had an incision, bone or muscle has been worked on, or connective tissues have been displaced. Most patients worry their pain will be more than they can stand, but the good news is there are plenty of pain medications available to help minimize discomfort. The key is finding the ones that work best for individual patients and ensuring they're taken early on in the pain cycle and at scheduled intervals.

In the Recovery Room

Immediately after surgery, you may experience some serious discomfort. Rest assured that you'll have a nurse right by your side, armed with a fast-acting narcotic pain medication to be administered into your IV. Tell your nurse as soon as you feel pain, and keep talking until you've received the right dose to relieve it. It might take several doses before your nurse "catches" your pain, but once she's relieved the immediate discomfort, it will be easier for her to prevent your pain from spiking again.  

In Your Hospital Room

Once you're out of recovery and in your hospital room, you'll either have access to self-administered or nurse-administered IV pain medication. If your surgery was minor, you might go straight to oral pain medication. Narcotic medications can be administered through your IV, as a shot or as a pill. If you start with IV or injected pain medication, your doctor will probably order oral medication to start within a couple days after your surgery. You'll probably be prescribed narcotics like morphine, Fentanyl, Vicodin, or Percocet and you might also be prescribed anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen.  

Stay on Schedule

Don't let your pain get too severe. Some patients think it's best to wait as long as possible before taking more medication, but that can backfire. It takes far more medication to "catch up " to severe pain than it does to keep it away. Instead, take your medication on schedule and at the first sign that your last dose is wearing off.

What if Your Pain Medication Doesn't Work? 

There are lots of medications your doctor can prescribe. If one doesn't work, another one will. And if you've been dealing with chronic pain for a while and taking narcotic pain medication regularly, your doctor might need to prescribe stronger doses or different medications to keep you comfortable. Don't be afraid to speak up and ask for help if you're in pain.

Get Moving

You'll probably feel like staying in bed, but the sooner you get up and start moving, the better you'll feel and the faster you'll heal. Walking is especially important to counteract the constipation that's so common when patients take narcotic pain medication. Walking and gentle movement also sets your body on the path to healing by sending your brain and body the subtle message that you're not so injured you have to lie around; you're healing.

With some surgeries, like hip or knee replacement, a physical therapist will guide you through a series of exercises designed to put your new joint in motion, prevent it from becoming stiff and sore, and promote healing. Take your pain medication an hour before your exercise or therapy session to make it easier to move.

Your physician might recommend using ice and heat to ease the pain. Ice reduces inflammation and heat increases circulation. She might recommend alternating between the two. Heat and cold therapy isn't appropriate for every patient though, so be sure to follow your doctor's guidelines. 

If your pain increases, this could be a sign of infection, poor healing, or simply being on the wrong medication. The more you tell your doctor about how you feel, the better able she'll be to treat you. Keep talking, keep moving, and let the healing begin.

Dr. Heather Weldon, M.D. reviewed this article.