Managing pain after surgery

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It is normal to experience some pain and discomfort after surgery, but there are ways to manage it. Find out what you can do to help manage your pain after surgery.

Key points

  • After surgery you will be given medications to help manage your pain.
  • Always take your medication as instructed by your health-care team, especially if you are prescribed opiates.
  • Pain medication is most effective when you take it early, before you start experiencing really bad pain.
  • If you need to cough, try splinted coughing, which helps you cough in a way that is less painful.
  • Try to keep your mind busy so that you don't focus on your pain, which is usually worse if you are bored, upset or worried.

After surgery, your health-care team will focus on helping you feel as comfortable and free of pain as possible. Unfortunately, being completely pain-free right after surgery is not always possible, as sometimes it can take time to find what works best for you.

Pain medication

How is medication used to treat pain?

After surgery, you will be given medication to help you manage pain.

  • Directly after surgery, your medication will probably be given through an intravenous line (also called an IV). You may have a special IV where you control how much pain medication you get by pressing a button each time you need some (called a PCA or patient-controlled analgesia). Your nurse will explain how this works.
  • You can also have pain medication as pills that you swallow.
  • Some pain medication is scheduled and will be brought to you at set times each day. You may also have pain medication that you can use as you need it, such as before changing a dressing or doing your exercises.
  • Pain medication works best when you take it early, before the pain gets really bad. That’s why it’s important to take your scheduled pain medication at the right time and plan when you'll use your 'as you need it' pain medication.
  • If you take some pain medications, specifically opiates, for a long time, your body gets used to them. When you have less need for opiates, the dose will be slowly decreased to prevent physical withdrawal. Opiates are less addictive when they are used properly. When medication becomes addictive, it means that you may start to feel a craving or need for it because your body wants the medication to achieve a 'high' instead of to relieve pain. This is not very common when teens are taking these medications for cancer pain and your health-care team will monitor you closely.

How else can I manage pain?

If you feel the need to cough, but it hurts too much, then doing something called 'splinted coughing' really helps. Splinted coughing means you take a pillow, stuffed animal or anything soft and hold it over the area that hurts. Give gentle pressure (you won’t hurt anything) and then take a deep breath and try to cough. This gentle pressure over the area that hurts will make it a little easier to give a stronger cough.

Like other teens, you may find your pain is worse when you're bored, worried or upset. Keeping your mind occupied and feeling relaxed can make your pain seem more manageable. Check out the pages on relaxation and distraction to learn about other physical and psychological strategies to manage pain.

Review the handout Five Questions to Ask About My Medicine. It will help you be better prepared to discuss your medications with your health-care team.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019