Although surgery is painful and may leave you sore and uncomfortable for a few days, it’s best to limit opioids or avoid them altogether, recommends the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA).
Many patients leave the postsurgery recovery room with a prescription for 30 or more highly addictive opioid pills (such as Vicodin, hydrocodone, and oxycodone), and about 6 percent are still using them three months or longer after the procedure.
“Nobody needs a prescription for 30 or 50 opioids, and even those who are in major pain and may benefit should only take them for a day or two,” said ASA President James D. Grant, MD, MBA, FASA. “There are effective alternatives, and many people don’t need opioids at all or at least should drastically reduce the amount they take.”
Addiction can start after taking only a few opioids. More than 2 million Americans abuse these medications, which can create a feeling of euphoria and make the body believe the drug is necessary for survival. Since 2000, opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. have increased 200 percent.
So, don’t take that chance. During Physician Anesthesiologists Week (January 28–February 3), ASA offers advice for coping with pain and discomfort as you recover from surgery.
- Ask about alternatives. Opioids should be taken only when you are in extreme pain. Medications such as ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can effectively manage pain and soreness. While it’s never a good idea to rely on any type of pain pills for too long, these medications are not addictive and are far less risky than opioids.
- Manage your expectations. Everyone feels pain differently, but it’s important to realize that soreness and discomfort after surgery are normal and will improve within a day or two. These sensations are less severe than pain, which is usually sharp or intense. Think about when you have your teeth cleaned at the dentist or exercise particularly vigorously. You might be sore afterward, but you know it will pass and wouldn’t think of taking an opioid to manage the discomfort. You would likely turn to ibuprofen or naproxen to ease the soreness.
- Be involved in your care. While you are in recovery, the nurse will ask you if you are in pain and, if so, how much. Be descriptive in explaining how you feel, noting if you are sore, uncomfortable, or in serious pain. If you are in major pain, ask that the opioid prescription be written for a small amount, such as five pills, as unused pills can fall into the wrong hands. In fact, more than half of people who misuse prescription painkillers get them from a friend or relative. Keep in mind, your pain will improve significantly within a few days whether or not you take opioids.
- Limit the opioids. If you are in severe pain and are prescribed opioids, use them sparingly. Take them only for a day or two after surgery—three days at most.
- Be aware of other downsides to opioids. Opioids cause severe constipation and often don’t manage pain as well as people expect. Additionally, they can cause hyperalgesia, meaning they can increase sensitivity to pain.
“The opioid crisis is huge and affects everyone, rich and poor, male and female, folks who live in urban areas as well as rural areas. It’s got to stop and reducing opioid use during recovery after surgery is a big part of the solution,” said Grant. “Those who are in continued severe pain after surgery should ask a physician anesthesiologist or other pain specialist about other strategies to manage pain, including exercise, nerve blocks, and nonopioid medications.”
This article was adapted from information provided by ASA.