The Types of Post-Surgery Pain You May Experience

Surgical pain is pain that results from a surgical procedure. The pain has a number of possible causes, including:

  • Tissue damage at the incision
  • The procedure itself
  • The closing of the wound
  • Force that may be applied during the procedure
A bandage around a boy's elbow after an operation

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Pain after surgery may have other causes. You may have back pain because of how you were lying on the surgical table. Throat pain is common after general anesthesia. This is because the breathing tube can cause irritation.

All pain hurts, but all pain is not the same. There are different causes of pain. There are also different resulting sensations. For example, the pain you feel when you burn your finger is different than the pain you might feel from a surgical incision.

This article looks at some of the different types of pain you may have after surgery. It also discusses ways to manage your pain.

Nociceptive Pain

Nociceptive pain is typically caused by tissue damage. This can include damage to:

  • Muscle
  • Bone
  • Skin
  • Organs

Examples of things that cause this kind of pain include:

Nociceptive pain usually improves with healing.

Nociceptive pain is the most commonly experienced pain. When someone says they are in pain, this is usually what they mean. There are different types of nociceptive pain.

Superficial Somatic Pain

Somatic pain is pain caused by injury. It usually improves with healing. It is typically gone when healing is complete.

Superficial means the injury is on the surface. Superficial somatic pain includes:

  • Cuts
  • Bruises
  • Burns
  • The skin wound from a surgical incision

Deep Somatic Pain

Deep somatic pain comes from tissues deep within the body. This includes tissues like:

You feel deep somatic pain after an ankle sprain or broken bone.

Some surgical pain is deep somatic. This includes the part of the incision that cuts through muscle or other internal tissue.

For example, a surgeon must cut through the muscles of the abdominal wall to remove an inflamed appendix. The pain that comes from those muscles is a deep somatic pain.

Recap

Somatic pain is caused by injury like cuts, bruises, burns, and surgical incisions.

Visceral Pain

Visceral pain comes from internal organs. This is the pain you feel when you have gas pain or appendicitis.

Visceral pain does not always seem to come from the location of the problem. The pain may be general. It may even seem like it's coming from another part of your body. This makes it hard to pinpoint its origins.

Visceral pain can be caused by surgery. It can also be caused by other types of organ damage. This includes things like cancer or infection.

The process of cutting into an organ can cause visceral pain. Gas that travels through the gastrointestinal tract after surgery can also cause this kind of pain.

Neuropathic Pain

Neuropathic pain is caused by damage to nerve cells. This damage can be a result of surgery. It can also be caused by injury or diseases like diabetes.

Types of neuropathic pain include:

  • Central neuropathic pain (CNP): This is pain that happens after damage to the brain or spinal cord. This type of pain could be caused by surgical damage to a nerve. This might happen during brain, head, or spinal surgery.
  • Peripheral neuropathic pain: This type of pain comes from nerves that are not part of the brain or spinal cord. Examples include nerves in the arms and legs. The repair or replacement of a joint is an example of surgery that could cause this kind of pain.

Recap

Visceral pain is pain felt in the internal organs. Neuropathic pain is caused by nerve damage.

Referred Pain

Referred pain occurs when the brain can't tell where the pain is coming from. This happens because the brain gets bundled information from different parts of the body through one set of nerves.

This kind of pain may happen during a heart attack. Some heart attack patients have referred pain in the left arm. This is because the nerve signals from the heart and arm are sent to the brain together.

Phantom Limb Pain

Phantom limb pain is a unique phenomenon. When you have this kind of pain, you continue to feel a sensation in a body part that has been amputated, or removed.

The name "phantom limb pain" can be misleading. This pain can happen in other body parts, too. People who have had a breast or other non-limb body part removed may also feel this kind of pain.

In the past, phantom limb pain was thought to be psychological. It is now known that it originates in the nervous system.

Some people with this condition can simply feel the presence of the amputated body part. Others may experience severe pain. This kind of pain is usually medicated like other types of pain.

Recap

People who have had body parts removed may experience phantom pain where those parts used to be.

What to Do About Your Pain

Pain after surgery is normal. Your surgeon should prescribe or recommend pain medication for you to take after your procedure. This does not necessarily mean you will have no pain. It means your pain will be tolerable.

Contact your surgeon if your pain suddenly increases or becomes unmanageable. This can be a sign of a setback in your recovery.

In general, your pain should slowly improve each day. Use your pain medication as it is prescribed. "Toughing it out" can actually slow your recovery. It can also prevent you from being up and moving in the days and weeks after surgery.

Summary

You may experience several different types of pain after surgery. Some pain may be caused by the procedure itself. Other pain may be caused by related factors like the breathing tube.

Nociceptive pain is pain caused by tissue damage. This kind of pain can be on the surface or in deeper tissues.

Visceral pain is felt in the internal organs. Neuropathic pain comes from the nerves. Referred pain is pain that seems like it is coming from a different area of the body than the part that is actually injured.

After an amputation, some patients may experience phantom pain where the missing body part used to be.  

Tell your surgeon about any increase in pain after surgery. Make sure to take your pain medicine as prescribed.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • At what point after my procedure is post-surgical pain the worst?

    Generally speaking, post-surgical pain is at its worst 48 hours after a procedure. This can vary depending on several factors, including the use of painkillers.

  • Why is post-surgical pain worse at night?

    Among the possible reasons are:

    • Your sleep position
    • Disruption of your sleep-wake cycle due to your procedure or medications you are taking
    • Being too active during the day
  • How long should I take pain medication after surgery?

    It depends. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Motrin (ibuprofen) are typically used for 10 days or less. This is because of potential side effects like stomach ulcers. Opioids like OxyContin (oxycodone) should be taken for the shortest amount of time possible. Addiction is rare when they are used for five days or less. Always follow your doctor's instructions.

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