Managing pain after surgery

Surgery and pain pills used to go hand in hand. After all, you need a strong prescription pain medication to ensure you aren’t in pain after a procedure, right?

Turns out not only is prescription pain medication not always needed, but often not advisable after surgery, because it can raise the risk of opioid addiction. As a result, surgeons today are rethinking post-surgical pain management strategies. And if you’re going under the knife, you should too.

In the 1990s, the number of opioid prescriptions written for people undergoing surgery or experiencing pain conditions grew — and so did related problems. As a result, “We are in a current opioid epidemic, with 91 substance-related deaths each day, according to the CDC,” says Dr. Elizabeth Matzkin, an orthopedic surgeon and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

This is not just a young person’s problem. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates that the proportion of older adults who misuse opioids is set to double between 2004 and 2020, from 1.2% to 2.4%. In 2016, more than 500,000 Medicare Part D beneficiaries were given an opioid prescription by their doctor — and the average dose was well above recommended amounts.

Rethinking pain management

“Orthopedic surgeons are the third highest prescriber of opioid analgesics in the United States, and we are therefore in a pivotal position to change the current overprescribing patterns for postoperative pain management,” says Dr. Matzkin. Today, surgeons like her are increasingly turning toward non-opioid medications and other options to manage pain. And they’ve also started having more conversations with patients before surgery to come up with safer treatment plans ahead of time.

If you’re scheduled for a surgical procedure, having a plan to control pain after the surgery may help you avoid unnecessary use of opioids.

4 tips for effective and safer ways to manage your pain

Avoid opioid pain pills whenever possible. In many cases, non-opioid pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol), will control postsurgical pain if taken as recommended. “We just completed a study of 163 knee arthroscopy patients who were sent home with non-opioid pain management,” says Dr. Matzkin. Based on the findings of this study, 82% of patients who undergo arthroscopic partial meniscectomy (a common knee surgery) or chondroplasty (a procedure to repair cartilage in the knee) can achieve satisfactory pain control with non-opioid pain management.

Limit opioid medication use. If it is necessary to use an opioid, limit the amount of time you take it, says Dr. Christopher Chiodo, an instructor in orthopedic surgery at Harvard Medical School. Ideally, you should take it for less than a week — and only when other options won’t work, he says. One way to reduce the amount of opioid medication you are taking is to alternate it with non-opioid treatments, such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, if your doctor approves.

Adjust your expectations. “Orthopedic surgeons are also setting expectations for patients preoperatively. “When people are having surgery, they should expect to have some pain or discomfort,” says Dr. Matzkin. While no one should have to endure excruciating pain, having some pain is okay. “Letting people know that it’s okay to have some pain can actually reduce the amount of pain medications required,” says Dr. Chiodo. Sometimes when people aren’t told to expect some discomfort or pain, they get nervous when they experience it, which leads to more medication use. Think of surgery like you would exercise: you’ll be sore afterward, but you wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) take an opioid pain reliever to address the problem.

Use nonmedication strategies to manage pain. The key to effective pain management is to use a combination of methods. “If you are having surgery on a lower extremity, elevate it after the procedure. This can help substantially with pain relief, swelling, and wound healing,” says Dr. Chiodo. Icing the area can also help in the first 24 to 48 hours after surgery. But be certain to follow your doctor’s instructions carefully when using ice. It can cause tissue damage if used for too long — particularly in people who have reduced sensation in the area while the anesthetic used during surgery is wearing off.

Have a pain management plan in place before your procedure

Don’t wait until after surgery to decide what type of pain management you will use. Discuss pain control with your surgeon before your operation, and agree on a course of action ahead of time.


  1. Marvin

    If the orthopedic doctor messed up on the surgery what should you do?
    Because I’ve had 4 surgery on 1 total hip replacement & now foundout that there’s a tearing of the tendon in my left buttock.
    I take meds because it’s uncontrollable and it’s been 8 yrs and I’m tired of all this.
    So you tell me what should be done, when any kind of surgeon messes up on the surgery?

  2. Pam Whitehead

    One total knee replacement things to help with pain these all go hand in hand! powerful drugs for a week, ice pack often and physio at a rehab hospital and walking in water. Then time will do the rest.

  3. Henry Pong

    Elevation for upper extremity pain; “hand above the elbow and elbow above the heart”
    Elevation for lower extremity pain;”it’s literally, Toes above your nose” it’s not sitting up with your foot on an ottoman!”
    Oh, and tell doctors to stop using ace bandages when wrapping splints on. Each layer tightens the preceding and ends up creating a tourniquet effect. Tell doctors especially in the EW to use gauze bandages that don’t stretch.

  4. Patricia Devine

    I don’t think it’s acceptable to expect patients to be in pain, if opioids relieve the pain. A relatively small percentage of opioid naive patients become addicted or have problems stopping after surgery. I believe it’s about 15%. Expecting people to be in pain is not the answer to the opioid crisis. Bodies cannot heal properly with the additional stress of being in pain. Let’s figure out to treat the pain responsibly and work towards insurance companies cover alternative strategies, such as massage and acupuncture, when appropriate.

  5. Yan Jin

    TCM says “Where there is no movement there is pain. Where there is movement there is no pain.” How about try to move (changes and exercises)mine and body for pain management.


    What happened to our empathy? There is “discomfort” and then there is “unbelievable pain”! I really believe that a majority of overdoses in this country are fentanyl related, thanks to China mostly. But our government throws “ALL” deaths in one basket! Television news never discussed this . You must go online, search experts etc. Pain clinics reducing meds because afraid of retaliation by government policies,doctors afraid to help people with disabilities that have terrible pain involved. Real suicides are occurring in this country because people can only take severe 24/7 pain for so long! These are also tossed in to the equation of overdoses. Do some investigation on your owm!!!

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