Expert Blogs | Pain Management
How to Recover From Surgery Without Getting Addicted to Painkillers
doctors and nurses in surgery room

Pain management is an important consideration when you’re having surgery – not only to minimize discomfort, but also because good post-operative pain control plays a vital role in optimizing your recovery. The sooner you are able to get up and about, the less likely you are to develop complications like blood clots, hospital acquired infections, and respiratory problems.

But with the opioid crisis in the news, you may be concerned about how to recover from your upcoming surgery without the risk of getting addicted to painkillers. And you’re wise to be cautious – according to a study done at University of Michigan, 6% of people who were prescribed opioids for post-surgery pain were still getting the drugs three to six months later. So, how can you prevent this from happening to you?

Fortunately, there are ways of improving post-operative pain control while lessening the risk of addiction. Here are some options to discuss with your physicians that may apply to your particular situation:

  • Multi-Modal Analgesia – This is a term developed by anesthesiologists to describe a pain control strategy that utilizes two or more different types of medications, with a goal of minimizing side effects and preventing an over-dependence on opioids for relief. For example, instead of just taking an opioid painkiller after surgery, other classes of medications like acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (like ibuprofen) can be added to the mix. And other novel classes of medications, like gabapentin and ketamine, can be added at the time of surgery to diminish post-operative pain levels.
  • Regional Anesthesia – In some cases, a nerve block can be performed by your anesthesiologist before your surgery to help decrease the amount of pain medication required right after surgery. Regional techniques, including the use of epidural catheters, are especially helpful for certain orthopedic surgeries, as well as surgeries involving opening up the chest wall or abdomen.
  • Mind/Body Approaches – There is a lot more to pain management than just medication, even when it comes to treating post-operative pain. Relaxation training, meditation apps, music, and even virtual reality have been shown to lower the need for painkillers. In some cases, hands-on therapies like massage and acupuncture can also help reduce pain and swelling. Don’t be afraid to think outside the box!

When you do need to use opioids, exercise caution and be aware of the risk factors for addiction. One factor that seems to greatly impact the risk of opioid dependence after surgery is the number of days that someone remains on opioid painkillers. There doesn’t seem to be a particular risk after the first few days of having surgery, but once you get to around the fifth post-operative day, the odds of staying on opioids long-term goes way up. Certainly, each situation poses unique circumstances. After all, there is a big difference between cataract surgery and a spinal fusion, but if you want to play it safe, try to avoid being on opioids beyond the first 3-5 days after surgery if possible (and have the doctor prescribe only enough pills for the first few days). Other factors than can increase your risk for becoming dependent on painkillers after surgery include a past history of addiction, depression, or anxiety, and tobacco use.

To make sure you have the most effective, and the safest, post-operative pain control, talk to your doctor ahead of time. Don’t wait until the day of surgery to have the discussion. Having a plan in advance will allow time for coordination to take place between your surgeon, the anesthesiologist, and the facility where the surgery is taking place.

WebMD Expert Blog © 2018 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

Important: The opinions expressed in WebMD Blogs are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Blogs are not reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance, objectivity, or any other reason except for compliance with our Terms and Conditions. Some of these opinions may contain information about treatments or uses of drug products that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment.

Do not consider WebMD Blogs as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on WebMD. You should always speak with your doctor before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your care plan or treatment. WebMD understands that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified health care provider. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.

Peter Abaci, MD

Peter Abaci, MD

Board-certified anesthesiologist and pain specialist

Peter Abaci, MD, is one of the world’s leading experts on pain and integrative medicine. He is the medical director and co-founder of the renowned Bay Area Pain and Wellness Center and the author of Conquer Your Chronic Pain: A Life-Changing Drug-Free Approach for Relief, Recovery, and Restoration and Take Charge of Your Chronic Pain: The Latest Research, Cutting-Edge Tools, and Alternative Treatments for Feeling Better.

Latest Blog Posts From Peter Abaci, MD

Can Electricity Relieve Your Pain?

Can Electricity Relieve Your Pain?

Like many of my own patients, you may be interested in doing more to treat to pain than just relying on medications, but you aren’t sure where to start. One simple and accessible treatment to consider ...

Read more
Is It Time for a Pain Management Reboot?

Is It Time for a Pain Management Reboot?

Coming out of the pandemic, it's time to reflect on lessons learned and make some changes.

Read more