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Managing Pain After Surgery

Dealing with post-surgery pain begins before your operation.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Hearing your doctor utter the words, "We’re going to have to operate," can send a shiver down your spine. Immediately, questions about the seriousness of your condition, the procedure itself, and the likelihood that it will cure what ails you flood the mind. Then, there is the prospect of post-surgery pain. How badly is this going to hurt?

The bad news is that some pain is an inevitable companion to most types of surgery. The good news is that there are many highly effective medications to keep post-surgical pain under control. In addition to the benefit of greater comfort, experts say well-controlled pain can speed recovery and prevent long-term problems.

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In order to make sure you’re getting the best possible treatment for your post-surgical pain, experts advise taking an active role and keeping the channels of communication open between you and your doctor -- starting before your operation.

Start Before Surgery

The time to talk with your surgeon and anesthesiologist about how your pain will be managed after surgery is during pre-surgery testing, not after the procedure has occurred, says Michel Dubois, MD, director of research and education and professor of clinical anesthesiology at the NYU School of Medicine.

Here are some important items to discuss with your doctor before making your way to the hospital:

Tell them about everything you're taking. Your doctor needs to know about all supplements, prescription drugs, and over-the-counter medications you take, in order to prevent dangerous drug interactions.

Ask how much pain to expect and how long will it last.  Everyone handles pain differently. Still, each type of surgery generally involves a certain level and type of pain.

For instance, Eduardo M. Fraifeld, MD, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, says that following back surgery people commonly experience a lot of muscle spasms. Abdominal surgery, on the other hand, typically causes cramping pain as the bowels work to get back to normal. 

It’s useful to know ahead of time what is typical for the kind of surgery you’re undergoing and how long you can expect it to last. Being prepared for what’s to come may help you feel less anxious, particularly if the pain you experience is in line with what you were told to expect. And if your pain is significantly more intense or longer lasting than what you and your doctor discussed, you’ll know to bring it to his or her attention.

Learn about possible side effects of pain medication and what you can do about them. One of the problems with opioids, a commonly used class of post-surgery pain medications, is that they have side effects, Fraifeld says. "Not just drowsiness and sedation, but you’ve got nausea, urinary retention, and constipation, which cause a lot of other significant effects and prolongs the healing."

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