Ouch! How to Relieve Pain after Surgery
If you’ve had surgery and are experiencing pain, this article is for you. I had elbow surgery and experienced pain complications after the procedure. I’ve got tips for how to relieve pain after surgery.
Surgery Doesn’t Hurt… Healing from Surgery is Painful
The good news is… the surgery itself doesn’t hurt!
That’s right. The surgical team (surgeon, operating nurse, and anesthesiologist) will give you medicine intravenously (which means through an IV) so you’re not fully awake during the operation. If they do their jobs right, you won’t feel a thing.
In fact, when I woke up from my surgery, I sat up ready to get going. After the recovery nurse gave me some water, I was trying to get out of the bed and into the wheelchair to leave. Good thing she stopped me… I didn’t even have my clothes on yet! That’s how I can tell you with confidence that the surgery itself did not hurt at all.
Follow Doctor’s Orders: Avoiding Pain after Surgery
The surgeon told me that for 24 hours my arm would remain numb. He was right. I couldn’t even move my fingers voluntarily. In fact, I made a few home videos laughing at my “finger drop”.
The doctor also instructed me to take one of my opioid pain medications right before bed. He said that they couldn’t 100% predict when the numbing medication would wear off, and he didn’t want me to wake up in sharp, shooting pain during the middle of the night.
So, I did as I was told. I took a pain pill before bed and one more upon waking the first morning after my operation. So far, so good. I wasn’t feeling any pain.
Recovery Phase: How to Relieve Pain after Surgery
The first week after surgery was pretty uneventful. I was instructed to keep my arm elevated or in a sling. I was told to rest and not do a lot of activity. I was ordered to use my pain medication as needed.
I still was feeling pretty good. Not a lot of pain at all. I was hopeful my surgery was a success and that I’d be getting back to work and school in just a few weeks.
Did that happen? Nope!
In fact, after the hard cast was removed, I experienced a boatload of pain and a highly complicated recovery. Since I experienced a lot of painful moments, I sure can speak to how to relieve pain after surgery.
Here are five tips for coping with pain after surgery.
1) Find and use a pain scale that works for you.
So, I’m a nurse by professional background. I used to work on an inpatient psychiatric unit. We had to ask our patients each and every shift what their pain rating was. And, we used a 0-10 scale, where 0 was no pain and 10 was the worst pain of your life.
Let’s say you’re all propped up on pillows; you have ice packs on your arm; and you’re feeling pretty good. If you were asked your pain rating then, it would likely be a lower number. But… if you were in a moving vehicle, navigating over bumps and around potholes, then I’m sure your pain rating might jump up a bit higher on the scale.
After my surgery, I was able to give a number on the 0-10 scale… at first. When I was in more intense pain, it was easy to slap a number on and answer the pain rating questions. However, when the pain became more dull or achy and it changed throughout the day, it was more difficult for me to respond.
I thought back to my nursing school days and remembered a pain rating scale that’s primarily used with children or those who cannot answer the 0-10 pain rating. It’s called the Wong-Baker scale and you can learn more about it here.
When my therapist would approach me at occupational therapy and ask me to rate the pain in my arm, I’d pull out my cell phone and refer to the Wong-Baker scale. Was a I kid? No. But looking at the faces on the scale made it easier for me to answer the pain rating questions when my pain numbers were fuzzy.
2) Elevate the limb and use ice packs accordingly.
You may find it to be a nuisance, propping your limb up on pillows or using ice packs throughout the day, but it works.
Part of the reason you experience pain after surgery is due to swelling. Both visible swelling and the inflammation that happens inside the body. You want to do everything in your power to keep swelling down. Reducing inflammation helps the healing process.
So, yes. Prop your limb up on pillows. For me, after elbow surgery, I was known for carrying 2-3 small square pillows around with me everywhere I went. That’s right. I even brought them in the car… those were some of my most painful moments!
And while ice packs can become annoying (you have to use them and then put them back into the freezer to get them cold again), they work. I found it helpful to have more than one ice pack. Then, I could use one while the others were staying cold. I also kept two specific dish towels near my freezer so I could wrap the ice pack around with the towel, before placing it right on my arm’s skin.
Finally, take the pain medicine as prescribed. I was afraid of becoming addicted to the pain meds. Lots of people worry about that. However, if you are in pain you need to use the prescribed medication. It will help you get through the therapy that you’re likely going to need to get your limb moving again.
3) Use descriptive language when giving your pain rating to the staff.
Sure, you’re going to be asked at EVERY appointment, “What’s your pain rating today?” It becomes irritating after a while, yes. But they’re just doing their jobs.
When they asked me to rate my pain (and after I looked at the Wong-Baker scale) I’d give my answer AND I’d share what the pain felt like using descriptive language.
Some words you can use to describe pain include dull, achy, fiery, tingling, heavy, burning, sharp, shooting, tender, sore, or intense. I’m sure there’s plenty more. Perhaps you use a thesaurus feature to find more words to describe the pain you’re experiencing.
I found it was helpful to share with the staff how my arm was feeling. I wanted them to understand, as best they could, what I was going through. The more I shared, the more the staff could figure out how to relieve pain after surgery.
4) Speak up for yourself.
This tip is a combination of the above. And, so much more.
As I shared, the staff are just doing their jobs. They want to help you, and they have scripts to follow and charting to document. Sometimes, they do this in a sort of “rushed” way.
Take your time. Don’t let yourself feel flustered or frustrated. Look at the pain rating scale of your choosing, give your number, and add your descriptive language to your answer.
Another thing I did when the staff would ask me about my pain was, I told stories. Often my occupational therapy staff asked me to rate my pain when I was wrapped up in a heated blanket with my arm propped by pillows.
Did I hurt then? Not as much! Would my pain rating be accurate? Not really!
So, I would talk about my day before fully giving my pain rating. I’d tell the therapist how when I tried to scoop peanut butter out of the jar, I experienced sharp, shooting, intense pain down my forearm. I gave all the details so she could really grasp how my arm was still hurting on and off pretty badly.
You’re the center of your recovery. Be sure to speak up for yourself and hold nothing back.
5) Use a pain log or journal.
As I shared above, my recovery was quite complicated. I experienced increased pain levels due to some additional issues my elbow surgery created. Hopefully, you don’t find yourself in a heck of a lot of pain like I did.
However, if your pain continues longer than expected and you’re upset by how much you’re hurting, another good idea to consider is keeping some type of log.
I started a pain journal. Every morning, mid-day, and night, I’d write down my pain rating. I noted if my pain impacted my sleep. I jotted down what helped decrease the pain. I even started to write down when I took pain medicine and how it helped me or not.
Keeping some type of pain log is not only a good idea for you, but it helps your treatment team. I would bring my pain diary into my appointments with the various doctors. I wanted to share the real-time data that would help them understand just how much pain I was dealing with.
Well, I hope this list has helped some. Sure, I don’t have all the answers for how to relieve pain after surgery, but I definitely have figured out some strategies that work.
In addition to the list above, I’ve added in a whole bunch of holistic therapies that have supported my healing journey. If you’re interested in learning more, consider joining me for facilitated support. Click here to partner with me. I’d love to work with you!
About the Author: Elizabeth Scala MSN/MBA, RN, HNB-BC, RYT (200) is a board-certified holistic nurse, registered yoga instructor, and reiki master.
Elizabeth received her dual master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. She is a certified coach, nature lover, and avid meditator.
Elizabeth lives in Maryland with her supportive husband and playful pit bull. She enjoys gardening, jigsaw puzzles, farming, music, and hiking.