Coping with Post-Surgical Pain

Modern physicians are rarely shy about recommending surgery as an option, and the statistics bear that out. In 2010, an estimated 53.3 million surgical procedures were performed in the United States, a 300 percent increase over a ten-year period. While many of these procedures involved minimally invasive techniques that reduce recovery times and post-operative pain, there is at least some discomfort following any procedure.

For many people, this pain resulting from a surgery can be well managed using a variety of pharmacological and medical treatments, but there is always the possibility of intense post-surgical pain that defies conventional therapies.  About 2 to 10 percent of patients will also develop chronic post-operative pain (CPOP) which is pain that persists longer than the period in which the patient should have fully recovered from the procedure.

Why Pain Occurs after a Surgery

If you are undergoing a surgical procedure, there is almost always a serious health problem that necessitates such risks.  Among these risks are infection, nerve damage, severe pain and, even, death, but the condition that is being remedied is usually severe enough that it justifies damaging your skin, muscles and nerves.

Your body is not meant to be opened up and manipulated, and it interprets this kind of interference as harm. In response, the tissue around the incision will swell and redden as your immune system initiates a healing process. This response will also include stimulation of sensory nerve cells in the area which will transmit a pain impulse to the brain. This pain is a natural response that should subside as you recover.

Medical authorities have categorized the kinds of pain you may feel following surgery:

  • Superficial somatic pain—this kind of pain is related to the outside of your bodies. Following surgery, you will likely experience some superficial somatic pain from the skin incision.
  • Deep somatic pain—this pain is caused by damage to tissue like ligaments, muscle, and bones.
  • Visceral pain—if your internal organs are damaged prior to or during the procedure, you may experience visceral pain.
  • Neuropathic pain—this pain is a product of damage to nerve cells.
  • Phantom limb pain—if you have had an arm or leg amputated, or any other major body part removed during a procedure, you may experience phantom limb pain in which you may still feel sensations including pain from the missing body part.

Most kinds of post-operative pain is acute pain which is directly related to the damage to your body prior to and during the procedure. As these injuries are resolved, your acute pain symptoms should also disappear.

In a sizable portion of post-op patients, there may be pain up to a year following surgery.  It has been estimated that up to 30 percent of patients may experience ongoing or intermittent pain up to one year after a procedure; this may be higher than 40 percent among patients who underwent major thoracic surgery. About 5 percent of these may experience debilitating pain a year following surgery.

Preparing for Post-operative Pain

Pain management should begin in advance of your procedure. Your doctor should provide you with a list of ways to make your post-operative recovery easier and speedier, but you may also want to consider the following tips to help manage your post-operative pain.

  • Rearrange your home—if you are undergoing a major procedure like a joint replacement or heart surgery, you probably want to limit any obstacles to and from your bed. If you sleep upstairs, you may want to move your bed downstairs.
  • Prepare healthy food—you will likely want to minimize the amount of time on your feet cooking, so make your meals ahead of your operation and freeze them. Fully stock your pantry with foods high in protein that will expedite the healing process.
  • Obtain medical equipment—the right medical supplies like knee braces or oxygen tanks can keep you safe and help minimize pain, so you should make every effort to get them before you undergo your procedure.
  • Limit falling risk—you will probably be lightheaded after surgery so set up your home to reduce falling risks. This includes eliminating floor clutter, installing night lights and sleeping close to a bathroom.
  • Hire home aide—if you don’t have family or friends that can help you during your stay at home, you should hire a home health aide who can offer the medical support you will require. In many cases, this is covered by insurance.
  • Fill all your prescriptions—in addition to the pain medications also fill any other drug prescriptions prior to surgery. One of the last things you want to do is drive to the pharmacy to get a drug you forgot.

What to Do Following Surgery

After your procedure is completed, you should follow your doctor’s orders which should include the following:

  • Take pain medications as directed—stay on your physician’s pain management plan. Don’t take more pain medicine than allowed without consulting your doctor first. As you heal, your pain should lessen, so you may want to decrease your dosage or taper off how often you take a pill. You may also want to ask your doctor about OTC pain relievers as an alternative to opioids.
  • Sleep well—one of the keys to fast healing and proper pain management is sleeping enough. If you find that your sleep is being disrupted by pain or other issues, ask your doctor about potential options.
  • Ramp up activity—while you should stay in bed immediately after surgery, you shouldn’t remain there for weeks or months. Not only can this lead to muscle atrophy and joint stiffness, but it may also worsen your pain symptoms.  Gradually work more time on your feet and light activities into each day.
  • Stay positive—it may seem that your recovery isn’t going as fast as you like, but anxiety and frustration can actually slow your recovery even more. If you find yourself feeling stressed, take some time to do something relaxing like listening to music or watching an enjoyable movie.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.