Post-Surgical Pain: causes, symptoms, and treatments

When we suffer a medical condition, and our doctor mentions that we must undergo a surgical operation, it is very possible that we have many questions about it. And one of them will surely be the question of whether we will suffer from post-surgical pain or not.

The bad news is that having pain after surgery is very common, and it happens in the vast majority of cases. However, not all patients suffer in the same way, and the type of pain, intensity and duration will depend on several factors.

Throughout this article, we will analyze some factors that influence post-surgical pain, as well as the differences of the different types of pain we may experience after an operation, and ways to reduce it with medication by carrying out proper pain treatment.

Post-Surgical Pain

One of the most worrisome factors for a patient who has to undergo a surgical intervention is just how much pain he or she will suffer after the operation. Before the intervention, surely you have consulted with your surgeon about this issue.

The surgeon and the doctor in charge of you can prescribe a treatment with certain medicines for pain relief, depending on the operation and several factors.

Different operations cause differences in the pain that is suffered after the surgery.
A mild or short surgery usually causes less pain than surgery that lasts several hours, which are high risk or should be performed over an extended area of the body.

Other factors that may influence the type of pain and intensity are the patient’s physical condition, age, and even the psychological and emotional factor of the person. In addition, we must remember that each person has a different reaction to the same situation of pain.

Learning to control post-surgical pain is very important since it will give us the opportunity of an adequate recovery and with the least possible amount of pain.

A correct recovery for a patient after an operation reduces the risk of blood clots in the legs or lungs, as well as contracting a lung or urinary infection. It also reduces the risks of generating chronic pain problems, and only consume the right medication for it.

In addition, if the patient recovers correctly in a short period, he or she can leave the hospital and return home. This could help so the patient continues the recovery in a much more comfortable environment.

What causes post-surgical pain?

Post-surgical pain arises because of the cuts or incisions in the skin that are made in the operation. Throughout the entire skin, the human body has nerves and pain sensors which react to the stimuli generated.
Little by little, the pain begins to disappear as the wounds of the operation begin to heal.

Depending on the type of operation and its magnitude, pain can vary in intensity. Certain types of surgery require actions, such as cuts, inserting screws or metal parts because of bone breaks. Others involve extractions of the body, among many other kinds of painful operations. In these cases, recovery can be very slow and post-surgical pain could be very high.

One of the main problems in some operations is that they can lead to chronic pain.
In some cases, patients recover from surgery, although they could suffer chronic pain if they can’t have a full recovery.

After an operation, there are patients who may be unable to perform some activities they usually did in the past. However, these cases are not the most frequent and depends on a lot about the operation and its cause.

Possible post-surgical complications

Occasionally, some complications may arise after surgery. The doctor should be contacted immediately in case of the following:

  • Infection: if there is a pain in a reddened area, with pus or fluid and accompanying the pain with a high fever, it may be due to a case of infection. It must be attended by the doctor with urgency.
  • Breakage in the wound or separation of stitches prior to healing.
  • Accumulation of blood: if we see an accumulation of blood due to a bruise or swollen bruise, we may have to go to the doctor to have this accumulation drained.
  • Vomiting, intestinal changes or fistula formation: some surgeries, especially those involving the intestine or the abdominal area, can cause post-surgical reactions such as vomiting, pain, abnormal bowel function or abdominal distention. These conditions must be reviewed by a medical professional.
  • Pulmonary problems: after long-term surgery, lung problems such as cough, chest pain when breathing, fever, shortness of breath, blood clots in the lung or even pneumonia can occur. These conditions must be reviewed by a doctor.
  • Risk of a heart attack: after an operation, chest pain may occur in a person at risk of heart attack. This should be checked immediately by a professional in charge because it can lead to cardiac arrest or heart attack.
  • Bleeding: either externally from the wound, or internally. Hemorrhagic complications must be quickly treated since they can cause serious problems that put the patient’s life at risk.
  • Chronic complaints: if the patient has a chronic condition, it is possible that it could be worse after surgery. It is necessary to previously consult with a medical professional in charge of the surgery in order to better control the risk of increasing chronic conditions and its possible treatment.

Symptoms of post-surgical pain

Post-surgical pain can be described individually in several ways.
A doctor can ask you certain information to be able to obtain the cause of it, such as:

  • Type of pain (sharp, sharp, hot).
  • Location (where it hurts).
  • Duration (pain comes and goes, constant).
  • Severity (pain scale from 1 to 10).
  • Radiation (pain begins at one point and moves towards another).
  • Things that improve/worsen the pain.

After an operation, if you currently have some of following symptoms, you should call a doctor or go to the hospital’s emergency department as soon as possible:

  • Increased pain or no reduction of it with the prescribed medication.
  • Pain in the chest or lack of air.
  • If the pain does not allow the normal performance of daily activities such as eating, resting, or walking.
  • Vomiting, diarrhea or high fever (above 38 °C).
  • Internal or external bleeding.
  • Redness, pus or discharge from the wound.
  • Confusion or lethargy.
  • Severe pain or persistence of symptoms.

Post-surgical pain: medication and treatment

After an operation, the post-surgical pain is normal. The surgeon or specialist will be in charge of providing instructions or medical treatment to counteract it.

This may include the following:

  • Instructions on healing and bandaging.
  • How to properly sanitize the wound or scar.
  • When to take medication or the appropriate medication plan.
  • Activities we can do.
  • Diet to follow and recommended foods.
  • When to call the doctor or go to the medical center.
  • When to return for a check-up.

Medication and treatment from home

Surely, the doctor will provide us with a personalized treatment plan with medication to follow from our home.
This will depend on the type of operation, our condition and the severity of the post-surgical pain.

The recommended medications will normally be of the opioid type, such as oxycodone, phenytoin or morphine, which are specially prescribed for moderate to severe pain. Some of them may include paracetamol or codeine. These medications are found as pills, patches and injectables.

For mild or moderate pain, there are some over-the-counter medications that are accessible to the public. These are usually anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen.

A standardized or common treatment plan, with medication for a patient after an operation, could include acetaminophen or ibuprofen, prescribed for a certain number of days, each an interval of several hours. For example, an “x” dose of paracetamol every 6 hours for a period of 3 days.

The plan with post-surgical pain medication should be reviewed and prescribed by the doctor, before and after the surgery.
In addition, it is important to pay attention and follow the instructions of the doctor, or surgeon in charge, about the care and healing of wounds.

It is vital to keep the wound or scar of the operation properly sanitized. In the case of abdominal surgery, a special diet is surely prescribed. It is important to follow it to the letter for a correct recovery.

Exams and test for post-surgical pain

If you have post-surgical pain, you should first consult the surgeon or doctor in charge. If it is not possible to establish contact, then it is advisable to go to the medical center.

Sometimes is necessary to perform tests to determine the cause of the pain. They could be some of the following:

  • Questions about pain, location, intensity, among others.
  • Physical examination, especially the operated area.
  • Blood tests to check levels of white and red blood cells, signs of infection or bleeding, electrolyte verification, among others.
  • X-ray exams in the thorax and abdomen to evaluate possible pneumonia or abnormal intestinal transit.
  • In some cases, a CT scan may be necessary to check the area where the pain is present.
  • An ultrasound can be performed in search of possible fluid retention or kidney stones.

Results of exams and treatment

If the results of the tests are within normal values, the doctor can simply modify the prescribed medication or provide new instructions.

In case of a possible complication of the surgery, it is probable that the medication changes. In some cases, you will probably need to return to the hospital for medical hospitalization or a new intervention.

If the pain becomes persistent and the doctor cannot find the cause of it, you may have chronic pain. It is a very isolated case, not very frequent, but if it is determined that the patient has chronic pain, specific medications will be prescribed or the pass will be given to a specialist in pain management for special treatment.

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