Understanding pain and how you heal
Pain is a normal, expected part of the healing process following surgery, a procedure, an injury or an illness. Pain lets you know you’ve had an “injury” to your body. Having pain does not always mean that something is wrong or that you’re having complications.
Pain usually gets better as you heal, but it is more likely to do so if you take certain steps. Being active and working to regain function can contribute to healing and reducing pain.
Having pain can be exhausting and difficult to manage on your own. Talk with your health care provider about your pain so you can work together to create a safe plan to help you manage pain as you heal. The plan may include both non-medication and medication options. The goal is to help you take part in various activities and regain function.
Pain is usually referred to as acute or chronic.
Acute pain is a sudden, short-term episode of pain. Examples include pain after surgery or pain from an injury such as a broken bone. Acute pain decreases naturally as your body heals and generally lasts only for hours or days.
Pain is called chronic when it lasts for months or years, and it does not necessarily follow the natural pattern of improvement with healing.
Another term you may hear for pain is called “acute pain on top of chronic pain.” This happens when you have acute pain from an injury, illness, surgery or procedure in addition to an existing chronic pain condition such as arthritis. Your health care provider may adjust your chronic pain care plan temporarily while you have acute pain, but it is important you try to maintain the usual methods you use to manage chronic pain during this time.
While dealing with pain is challenging, try not to let it overwhelm you. Fear, anxiety and focus on pain can actually make pain worse. Remember that you do not have to deal with pain alone. Your health care team works with you to help you safely manage your pain.
Setting up a plan to ease acute pain
The first step in setting up a plan to ease your acute pain is for you to talk with your health care provider about how your pain affects your ability to be active. This is the best way to be sure you can take part in activities that help you heal.
Your health care provider can set up a plan that may include several methods to ease your pain, including:
- Pain-reducing strategies that don’t involve taking medication.
- Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen.
- Prescription medications such as opioids and other medications.
It’s important to follow the pain care plan carefully.
Ways to ease your pain
Easing acute pain does not mean taking it away completely. The goal is to manage your symptoms so that you can do what you need to do every day.
Do activities that do not involve taking medication
There are steps you can take to help you regain function that have been proven to improve healing. These may include physical therapy (PT), daily walking, ice, heat, and structured movement such as stretching, yoga and tai chi.
Your health care provider may also suggest other resources meant to help your body heal and reduce pain such as guided meditation, relaxation, listening to music, imagery and breathing exercises.
Talk with your provider about how to get started doing these methods of pain management.
Create a healing environment
While you heal from an injury, you may feel anxious, tired or have an upset stomach. These feelings can increase your pain. Try to:
- Prepare a comfortable environment for you to sleep in, such as a quiet, dark, cool room.
- Set aside quiet time.
- Set up specific times for visitors to see you so that you also have time for rest.
- Take people up on their offers to help.
- Use ear plugs or a sleep mask when you sleep or rest.
- Follow a routine as much as you are able, such as:
- Get out of bed for meals if possible.
- Follow a daily self-care routine, such as getting dressed.
- Participate in activities that your health care provider recommends.
- Do activities that distract you from thinking about pain.
Take over-the-counter medications as directed
Medications, such as acetaminophen (for example, Tylenol™) and ibuprofen (for example, Advil™), may be a part of your pain care plan. These medications are not opioid medications. Ask your provider if these medications are right for you.
If you are going to have surgery, sometimes your provider may recommend you start taking over-the-counter medications a few days before the procedure. Your provider may also recommend you take them on a scheduled basis for a few days afterwards to actively manage your pain and prevent it from becoming too intense.
Ask your provider about specific instructions related to over-the-counter medications. While you take acetaminophen or ibuprofen, make sure you’re not taking any other over-the-counter medication that contains acetaminophen or ibuprofen, such as certain cold medications. Read the packages for ingredients or talk with a pharmacist to be sure.
About opioid medications
Opioid medications, also called “narcotics” or “pain killers,” work by dulling the brain’s sense of pain. Opioids are strong medications that have the risk of addiction and have serious side effects and complications, including death. They are usually recommended to reduce severe, acute pain for a short time.
If your health care provider has included opioids in your pain care plan:
- Use only enough opioid medication for a short time to manage acute pain and improve your activity level after an injury or surgery.
- Take non-opioid, over-the-counter medications as recommended to help decrease your need for opioid medication. Ask your provider or pharmacist about whether your opioid medication is already combined with over-the-counter medications.
- Wean off opioids as soon as possible to avoid side effects and the risk of addiction.
- Never take opioid medications to prevent pain unless specifically told to by your provider.
- Do not drink alcohol while you take opioids.
- Do not take more opioids than you’ve been prescribed.
- Do not combine your opioid with any other medications that make you sleepy, such as benzodiazepines or muscle relaxants, unless you have been told to do so by your health care provider.
- When you’re done taking opioids, you may have some leftover pills. To help prevent opioid abuse and protect the environment, safely dispose of all unused opioid medications.
Before you take opioids, be sure to tell your health care provider about:
- All medications or substances you take, including herbal products or dietary supplements.
- Whether you or a family member has had a substance-use disorder or a mood or anxiety disorder in the past or currently. These conditions greatly increase your risk of addiction to opioids.
- Whether you have any other medical conditions, especially ones related to your heart and lungs, as opioids may not be safe to use if you have these conditions.
The longer you use opioids, the higher your risk of developing other medical problems, including chronic pain. Many state laws now limit the amount of opioids that health care providers can prescribe for pain control and place some restrictions on opioid prescription refills.
Your health care provider will try to reduce your risk of developing problems related to opioids by doing a thorough evaluation before prescribing opioids, limiting the number of pills you receive, and monitoring you during treatment.
If you are concerned about your medication use, talk with your provider right away.
- Pain is a normal, expected part of the healing process.
- Pain usually gets better as you heal, but it is more likely to do so if you are active and work to regain function.
- Your health care provider can monitor your pain level and partner with you to create a plan to help you manage pain as you heal.
This material is for your education and information only. This content does not replace medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. New medical research may change this information. If you have questions about a medical condition, always talk with your health care provider.
- © 2018 Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). All rights reserved.
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