Practical Tips for Dealing With Pain After Surgery

Coping with pain after surgery doesn't have to mean taking more prescription pain medication. Pain medication certainly has its place in pain management, but there are additional strategies that can help you deal with your surgery pain. Using a combination of strategies to control surgery pain can be very helpful and provide better pain relief than medication alone.

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How to Manage Pain Following a Surgical Procedure

Give these tips a try to help you manage any pain you may experience after surgery.

Stay Ahead of the Pain

Getting ahead of the pain means not waiting until your pain is severe before you take your medication. If you wait until your pain is severe or increasing, it will be more difficult to control your pain, especially after the wait for the medication to be absorbed by your body and take effect.

In the days immediately following your surgery, try taking your pain medication as prescribed by your surgeon. As your pain improves, you can extend the time between doses until you are able to quit using it altogether.

Consider Non-Prescription Pain Medication

You don't necessarily have to choose between taking prescription pain medication or no pain medicine. 

With your healthcare provider's approval, over-the-counter pain medication, such as NSAIDs or Tylenol, can help ease pain that is not severe enough to require prescription drugs but not improved enough to warrant no pain medication at all. Ask your healthcare provider if there's an appropriate OTC medication for you.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep is one of the most important things you can do to control your pain. Adequate sleep improves your ability to cope with pain, speeds healing, and can actually reduce pain.

Unfortunately, some patients experience insomnia following surgery. The trick is to reduce your pain enough to sleep well, which may require medication along with proper positioning.

Slowly Increase Physical Activity

What feels good when you are doing it may not feel very good a few hours later. When you are recovering from surgery, feeling better may seem like an invitation to return to your normal activities. Unfortunately, it is very easy to do too much, which increases your pain level and makes it difficult to move forward with your physical activity.

Increase your physical activity slowly - no more than a few extra minutes per day - until you have truly recovered from your procedure and are able to return your full potential.

Don't Sit Too Long

Sitting or laying in one place for too long can lead to more pain. Getting up and walking every hour or two during the day helps keep you from getting stiff, and has the added benefit of decreasing the risk of developing blood clots after your procedure.

Many people avoid walking because the move from sitting to standing can be a painful one. If your pain is so severe that you are unable to complete simple tasks such as standing and walking, you should consult your surgeon.

Consider Doing What You'd Normally Do

Just because you had surgery does not mean the ways that you typically control pain won't work.

For example, if you find that when you have a normal ache or pain, your pain responds better to ibuprofen (Advil) than naproxen (Aleve), your surgery pain will probably respond similarly. The same is true of heating pads and other pain aids that you might use regularly.

Brace Your Surgery Site

One of the simplest things you can do to prevent surgery pain is to brace your surgical incision. Bracing just means holding your incision/surgery site when you do anything that can cause stress on the site, including standing up, sneezing and coughing.

Minimizing the stress on your incision will reduce the pain you feel at the site and reduce your chances of severe complications, like dehiscence and evisceration.

Manage Your Stress Levels

Stress is the enemy of good pain control. An increase in stress can and often does increase pain. Surgery is a type of physical stress, and while that cannot be avoided, emotional stress can be minimized.

Try to avoid situations and even people who tend to increase your stress level in the early days of your recovery. Stress reduction techniques, such as deep breathing and relaxation exercises, can be very beneficial.

Avoid Aggravating Factors

There is an old joke that goes something like this:

  • Patient: "It hurts when I do this!"
  • Healthcare provider: "Stop doing that!"

While this is meant to be funny, there is also a grain of truth to it. If lifting your hands above your head hurts, avoid it. Pain is an excellent indicator of activities that you should avoid or limit during your recovery.

The "no pain, no gain" adage does not apply to surgery. Some pain may be unavoidable, such as during physical therapy, but avoiding it is typically a good thing.

A Word From Verywell

Common sense will go a long way in helping you with your pain after surgery. Avoid overdoing it, take your medication as prescribed, listen to your surgeon, and listen to your body.  

If your pain in unmanaged, impossible to control, or getting worse instead of better it is time to call your surgeon for further advice. Remember, pain can be a normal part of the healing process, but worsening pain or pain that is beyond what you've been told to anticipate may be a sign of a serious problem. 

6 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.
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  2. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Managing pain with medications after orthopaedic surgery.

  3. Finan PH, Goodin BR, Smith MT. The association of sleep and pain: an update and a path forward. J Pain. 2013;14(12):1539-52. doi:10.1016/j.jpain.2013.08.007

  4. Hoogeboom TJ, Dronkers JJ, Hulzebos EH, Van meeteren NL. Merits of exercise therapy before and after major surgery. Curr Opin Anaesthesiol. 2014;27(2):161-6. doi:10.1097/ACO.0000000000000062

  5. Advanced Tissue. How to prevent dehisced wounds.

  6. Ahmad AH, Zakaria R. Pain in times of stress. Malays J Med Sci.

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.