(MayoClinic.com) If you're having surgery, it's natural to have concerns — or even fears — about the pain following the procedure. Some pain is common after surgery, but you shouldn't have to endure severe pain. Pain medications are a key part of your recovery. Well-controlled pain using pain medications can speed healing and lead to fewer complications.
The time to talk about post-surgical pain relief and pain medications is before you have surgery. Being prepared can lead to more effective pain management.
Here's how to start:
Post-surgical pain control requires balancing benefits and risks. If your pain medications are too strong, you may have side effects, such as sleepiness, nausea or vomiting. But if pain medications are too weak, you may experience unnecessary pain. Pain limits your ability to breathe deeply, cough, walk and perform the activities necessary for a speedy recovery. The goal is finding the right balance for you at each point during and after the procedure.Pain relief after major surgery
Doctors rely on powerful medications to relieve pain during and immediately after surgery. These techniques are typically used until you're able to take pain medications by mouth. The type of pain relief you receive may depend partially on the type of surgery you have because the intensity of pain and the effectiveness of certain drugs varies by surgery.
Intravenous (IV) pain medication
Before surgery, you'll probably have a slender plastic tube (catheter) inserted into a vein in your hand or arm to give you fluids, sedatives, anesthetics, antibiotics or pain medications. After surgery, your doctor may keep this IV catheter in place to deliver pain medication while you're in the hospital or outpatient recovery area.
Pain relievers, such as opioids (for example, morphine or fentanyl), are usually injected into your IV catheter at regular intervals. Most hospitals also offer patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) — a system that allows you to give yourself a fixed dose of the medication by pushing a button. This way you don't have to ask a nurse for each dose of pain medicine.
The PCA system has built-in safeguards to prevent you from overdosing on pain medication. If you push the button more than once within a set period of time, the dispenser ignores the second request. This gives each dose of pain medicine enough time to work before you receive another dose. Also, when there's more medication than you need in your bloodstream, you become too sleepy to press the button. When you're no longer drowsy from medication, you'll be able to safely give yourself another dose. That's why friends or family should never push your PCA button. No one but the person receiving the medication should ever administer a dose.
In epidural analgesia, pain medications are injected through a catheter inserted into the epidural space within your spinal canal but outside your spinal fluid. An epidural catheter is often used for labor and delivery, and sometimes before a major operation, such as major abdominal surgery. The epidural catheter can be left in place for several days if needed to control postoperative pain. A continuous infusion of pain relievers, including numbing medications (local anesthetics) or opioid medications, can be delivered through the catheter to control pain.
Patient-controlled epidural analgesia (PCEA), similar to PCA, enables you to give yourself an extra dose of the pain medication by pushing a button. It, too, has built-in safeguards so that you don't give yourself too much medication.
Some surgeries can be done with spinal anesthesia. Unlike epidural analgesia, this form of pain relief involves medications injected directly into the spinal fluid. Spinal anesthesia is easier and faster than epidural analgesia, but it doesn't last as long because there's no catheter to allow the administration of additional medication. Your doctor can add a long-acting opioid to the spinal medication that can relieve post-surgical pain for up to 24 hours.
A nerve block provides targeted pain relief to an area of your body, such as an arm or leg. It prevents pain messages from traveling up the nerve pathway to your brain. If you need only several hours of pain relief, your anesthesiologist may use a single injection of local anesthetic around the appropriate nerves related to your surgery. For longer pain relief, your anesthesiologist may place a catheter into that area to deliver a continuous infusion of pain medications. Nerve blocks can be used for outpatient procedures or more-involved inpatient surgery. Sometimes you may even go home with a nerve block catheter attached to a pump that provides ongoing pain relief.
Combination pain medications
Often called multimodal pain relief, this involves receiving a combination of opioid and one or more other drugs, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol, others), celecoxib (Celebrex), ketamine (Ketalar) or gabapentin (Neurontin).
The additional drugs are usually given by mouth in tablet form. The combination may improve pain relief and reduce side effects by reducing the need for opioids.
There's ongoing research into post-surgical multimodal pain relief.Pain relief after minor surgery and during home recovery
For minor surgery, these tactics are all you need to control your pain. After major surgery, they're usually the last step on the road to healing. Your doctor also may recommend other methods of pain management, such as rest, ice and elevation, depending on the type of surgery.
Your doctor may inject local anesthetics, such as chloroprocaine hydrochloride (Nesacaine) or bupivacaine (Marcaine), directly into a wound or surgical cut, using a very small needle. This numbing medication lasts a short time and blocks pain in a small area of the body. It's also possible to go home with a catheter that delivers local anesthetics.
You'll probably be switched to oral medications in the hospital and continue taking them during your first few days — or weeks — at home.
After surgery, you'll need to communicate with your doctors and nurses. Controlling your pain is important to them, too.
Remember: When your pain is under control, your body can focus on the important work of healing. So this isn't the time to test your pain tolerance, or grin and bear it. Work with your health care team to make your recovery as prompt and pain-free as possible.
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