How Much Pain Is Acceptable After Surgery?

It's a common question and a complicated answer: Why won't my surgeon give me more pain medication? I'm having pain so why doesn’t he just give me better pain medication?

Girl lying on couch with water bottle on stomach
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Some pain after surgery is expected. The goal of pain management is to make the pain manageable or to significantly reduce your pain, the goal is not to eliminate pain. This allows you to get through your day, to take care of yourself and continue with the healing process.

There are several reasons that pain medication is given with the intention of reducing pain, not eliminating pain. It is possible to give too much pain medication. It can interfere with your breathing and can cause sedation beyond what is safe . Many pain medications also cause constipation, which can become a major surgical complication, depending upon the type of surgery you have had. More pain medication can mean more severe constipation.

Why Some Pain Can Be Beneficial

In some ways, pain protects you. If something hurts, you generally stop doing whatever is causing the pain and investigate. For example, if your foot suddenly hurt every time you took a step, you would stop and look at your foot, and perhaps find a splinter. If you didn’t feel that pain, you would not know that there was a problem. The same is true after surgery. An increase in pain near your incision, after several days of the pain getting slowly better, would certainly raise red flags, as would pain that cannot be controlled.

Too much pain after surgery is not a good thing, and you shouldn’t “gut it out.” If it hurts to breathe deeply or to cough, you may find yourself breathing shallowly, which can lead to complications like pneumonia. Patients heal faster when their pain is controlled, so don’t skip your pain medication unless you truly do not need it. It is reasonable to aim for pain that is a 2-3 out of 10, with zero being no pain and ten being the worst pain you can imagine. 

If you are concerned about the level of pain control you will have after surgery, speak with your surgeon before and after your surgery. You may need to provide details on your level of pain, which will help your healthcare provider, and the nursing staff, better understand your pain needs and adjust your medication accordingly. If your pain is unexpectedly severe, you may need to see your surgeon to rule out an unexpected complication. 

How to Minimize Pain After Surgery

If you are having more pain than you feel is acceptable after having surgery, take the time to review your discharge instructions. Are you taking the medication you were prescribed the way you were told to take it? Are you taking less medication than you were told or are you taking it less frequently than it was prescribed? If so, taking your medication as it was prescribed could make a huge difference in how you feel.

Are you following the other instructions you were given? If you are spending too much time in bed or sitting on the couch, rather than starting to walk and move more, you may actually be increasing your pain rather than improving it.  You could also be overdoing the activity if you have returned to your normal routine far faster than expected during your recovery.

Do your discharge instructions recommend alternatives to pain medication such as hot compresses, elevation of the affected body part or other types of interventions that can dramatically reduce pain? Have you been following those recommendations during your recovery?

If you have been following your discharge instructions, great! Even if you have not been following the instructions, if you are having serious pain you should address it with your surgeon. Pain can be a sign of a complication, infection, or it may be that you have a low tolerance for the type of pain caused by your surgery.

A Word From Verywell

If you have concerns about your pain level, speak up and tell the healthcare team, whether you are in the hospital or recovering at home. If your pain is not being controlled by the medication you have been prescribed, it is important that you speak up rather than just enduring the pain.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Benyamin R, Trescot AM, Datta S, et al. Opioid complications and side effects. Pain Physician. 2008;11(2 Suppl):S105-20.

  2. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). Pain after surgery.  

Additional Reading

By Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FN
Jennifer Whitlock, RN, MSN, FNP-C, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner. She has experience in primary care and hospital medicine.