You may have heard about the opioid epidemic currently affecting Americans. These powerful drugs used to decrease pain can lead to addiction or deadly overdose when used improperly. An increase in opioid use and abuse has led to many people choosing alternative treatment and rehabilitation options. Before surgery, your doctor will talk to you about what to expect and what your recovery period will look like. This is a great time to talk to your doctor about how you will feel after surgery and whether or not you will need these powerful pain medications to help you recover. Orthopedic doctors and surgeons recommend a combination of treatment approaches to help reduce your pain and discomfort after surgery so you can rehabilitate and recover effectively.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids refer to a large group of drugs that offer pain relief by interacting with your body’s opioid receptors. Doctors and surgeons should prescribe opioid medications conservatively and only for short periods of time, like in the days following a surgical procedure. The most common uses for opioids in the medical field are pain relief and anesthesia. Morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone, and hydrocodone are all types of opioid medications. Opioids can be made from natural substances like the poppy plant or synthesized in a laboratory. When you take opioid medications, the drug actually interacts with your brain cells to dim your perception of pain. This is what makes opioids effective in managing your pain, but also what makes them dangerous.
Dangers of Opioid Use
In many cases, the risk of taking opioids after surgery can outweigh the rewards. Pain medications like opioids do not treat your pain; instead, these medications merely mask your pain symptoms for a short period of time. Here are some examples of the dangers of opioid use.
Risk of Addiction
At a low dose prescribed properly by your doctor, opioids should mask your pain and may even make you feel drowsy. However, too high of a dose of opioids can also give you a rush of pleasure that may make you want to experience those feelings again. The combination of temporary pain relief and increased pleasure can make opioids very addictive. Because pain medications like opioids only mask pain symptoms for a short period of time, you might find yourself wanting to continue taking the medication to avoid experiencing the pain if it comes back. Addiction can happen to anyone, and certain life circumstances and your medical history may make you more susceptible to the addictive properties of powerful pain medication like opioids.
Risk of Overdose
When you take opioid medications properly, your doctor will typically prescribe the lowest dose possible and for a limited period of time. This can help reduce your risk of overdose because your doctor will typically recommend you switch to over-the-counter pain medications after two or three days. However, if you do not follow the prescribed medication directions, you run the risk of overdosing. There is a fine line between the appropriate dosage of opioids and when it becomes too much for your body. Accidental overdoses are unfortunately common with opioids because the amount used to treat pain is not that different from the amount that can lead to an overdose. Misusing a powerful medication like opioids can make the prescription medication just as dangerous as if you were using illegal drugs. If you accidentally take more medication than what was prescribed, you should reach out to your doctor and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Possible Side Effects
Opioid medications can also have dangerous side effects, including abdominal cramping, constipation, nausea, and vomiting. Other side effects may include headaches, sleepiness, disorientation, and lack of energy. Taking opioids at an inappropriate dosage can also lead to physical weakness and may suppress your breathing to the point of death.
Prescription Drug Safety Tips
Doctors will typically prescribe opioid medications conservatively, and opioids should not take the place of rehabilitation and recovery plans. You should only take opioid medications as prescribed by your doctor, including the appropriate dosage and length of time. You should never share your medications with other people; it is illegal to share prescription medications like opioids with another person as it could endanger their health. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about medications you are currently taking before you start taking any opioids to ensure no drug interactions. Never combine opioids with benzodiazepines (like Xanax or Valium) as these can slow or stop breathing. Return any unused opioid medications to the pharmacist for proper disposal.
What to Expect with Pain After Surgery
In the immediate aftermath of a surgery, you may experience pain and discomfort. The type of surgery you undergo will play a large part in how you feel afterward. Your age, fitness level, and severity of any injuries will also play a role in how your body responds after surgery. You can expect some post-surgical pain, and learning all your options for effective pain management will help ease your recovery process. Work with your doctor to develop a plan for how to effectively control your pain and reduce your risk of complications after surgery. Your doctor will make every effort to reduce the painful effects of surgery and recommend appropriate medications, physical therapy, and other post-operative rehabilitation strategies that are right for you.
It is also important to keep your pain under control after surgery so you can focus on completing important tasks and steps to aid in your recovery, like walking and deep breathing exercises. The surgery site may not be the only place where you experience pain and discomfort. You may also experience pain in your muscles, like in your neck, back, and shoulders, from lying still on the operating table. You may notice your throat feels sore and scratchy. Certain movements may make your pain and discomfort worse, like sitting up, walking around, and coughing. The best thing you can do for yourself and your healing process after surgery is to acknowledge when you are in pain. Don’t worry about being a bother to your doctor, nurses, or other caretakers. In order to effectively help you recover, your doctor needs to know when you experience pain, how often it occurs, and the severity of the pain.
How to Reduce Opioid Use After Surgery
Talk to your doctor about what type of pain control will be most effective and beneficial for you after surgery. Let your doctor know if you wish to avoid opioid medications and work with a pain specialist to learn all your different options for pain management and drug-free treatment.
Options for Pain Management
After surgery, your doctor may recommend over-the-counter pain medications or write a prescription for a higher dosage than the one you can get at the pharmacy. Always follow the prescribed regimen for when to take medication and what dosage will be most appropriate for you. Non-opioid analgesics like acetaminophen and non-NSAIDs have few side effects and are typically recommended for mild to moderate pain. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen reduce swelling and inflammation along with offering some pain relief. There are some side effects associated with oral pain medications, like stomach upset and dizziness. However, unlike opioid medications, these types of pain medications do not have a risk for abuse and addiction. Before taking any pain medications, you should always consult with your doctor about what medications you currently take, along with any regular vitamins and herbal supplements.
Options for Drug-Free Treatment
A combination of home remedies and rehabilitation strategies may help you effectively recover from surgery without the need for prescription drugs. Options for drug-free treatment will depend on the type of surgery you have and the success of the procedure. Other ways to relieve pain after surgery are typically recommended, along with pain medication to help significantly reduce your pain and discomfort afterward. Applying cold compresses or ice packs to help manage your pain and reduce swelling in the area. A warm compress or heating pad can help soothe aching muscles and reduce stiffness in the joints. Your doctor will let you know whether cold and hot therapies are an appropriate option for you after surgery.
Physical Therapy After Surgery
Physical therapy allows you to take an active role in your recovery after surgery. A physical therapist will work with you one-on-one to develop a personalized treatment plan and help you reach your goals. Physical therapy after surgery will provide you with techniques to manage and reduce your pain and discomfort while you heal. Your physical therapist is a movement expert, which means they help you get back on your feet and improve your quality of life with their hands-on approach to rehabilitation, patient education, and care. When you work with a physical therapist after surgery, they will help you set goals for treatment and determine tangible steps to help you reach those goals. While physical therapists are most commonly associated with stretches and exercises, they can also offer other treatment techniques like soft tissue mobilization and therapeutic massage.
Learn how to become an active participant in your rehabilitation after surgery when you work with a physical therapist. Physical therapy will help you regain and improve your strength and mobility after surgery. Some surgeries may require downtime that can leave you partially immobilized. If you cannot move certain parts of your body for a specified period of time, then your muscles may weaken and stiffen during that time. A physical therapist can help you prepare for any weakness and stiffness that occurs during your initial recovery phase and also help you regain that strength when appropriate. Physical therapy after surgery will also help you regain strength in other areas to ensure your whole body is better able to support itself. For example, if you had surgery for a broken bone in your leg, you might be surprised to work your core and abdominal muscles with physical therapy. However, strengthening your core can help support a healthier posture and allow you to distribute your weight more evenly across both legs.
A recent injury or subsequent surgery may leave you with a reduced range of motion or restricted mobility. Working with a physical therapist can help you improve your mobility in a safe and controlled environment. Your physical therapist can walk you through stretches to get your muscles warmed up and prepared for strengthening and mobility exercises. These exercises will also target your flexibility and balance, so you learn how to move more confidently on your feet. This can help reduce your risk of falls or reinjury after surgery. Work with a physical therapist to learn more about how you can effectively manage your pain while regaining and lost range of motion after surgery.
When you take an active role in your rehabilitation process after surgery, you will enjoy all the small moments and wins along the way that help you regain your strength and mobility. Going to physical therapy can help boost your confidence as you may start to feel even stronger and more flexible than you did before surgery. Recovery from surgery can sometimes feel discouraging or frustrating, and a physical therapist can help you channel those feelings into helpful exercises and activities that support your rehabilitation. You can take pride in your rehabilitation journey when you look back at the first day after surgery and realize how far you’ve come.
Visit AICA Orthopedics to learn more about how our team of doctors can help you reduce the need for opioid medications after surgery. Our pain specialists will talk you through all your options for pain management, and our orthopedic doctors can help you determine what will work best for you. We also have physical therapists who work alongside our orthopedic surgeons and other specialists so you can get quality, comprehensive care as you recover from surgery. Call or visit us online to get started at an AICA Orthopedics location in metro Atlanta near you.