Alternatives to pain medication after surgery
Why this article
On April 23, 2021, I had a lemon-sized tumor surgically removed from my cerebrum. I woke up the next morning on a morphine drip.
I would like to share my experience and how I dealt with pain in the hope it might help others.
Because I want this to help others, I will be relatively open and am happy to honestly answer questions. There are no stupid questions when it comes to pain. I obviously can only speak to my own experiences and everyone has to do their own research, but I will share what I can.
Just be aware that everyone’s experience is different and that it’s important for everyone to get the pain relief they need. Don’t try to be a hero.
Most important: Stay ahead of the pain.
What does that mean?
In America, they will describe a 10 point scale of pain to the patient. 10 is the highest pain level.
If you are feeling a pain level of, say, 6 on a 10 point scale, when you wake up — ask for pain relief. If the pain intensifies from a 4 to a 6 rapidly, immediately ask for pain relief. You need to get the pain under control while it is still moderate enough that you can get it under control. Don’t try to be a hero. Ask for help.
My surgery and pain management log
Here is a rough log of my progress and pain management after my surgery. Thanks to my hospital’s online patient portal, it was easy for me to verify dates and medications as well as the pain levels recorded by the nursing staff.
April 23rd: Tumor removed. It was metastatic cancer. I was placed on a morphine drip.
No complaints. Morphine is grand. I’m a big fan, as someone who has had her share of medical procedures.
April 24th: Woke up in the ICU and was on morphine but we transitioned to Hydrocodone every 6 hours.
April 25th: Transferred from ICU to a hospital room. A friend brought a laptop so that I could play hymns and sing along. This helped me deal with pain. I asked the nurse to switch from Hydrocodone to Tylenol.
April 26th: Took only Tylenol during the day. Took a Hydrocodone to go to sleep.
April 27th: Rough day. Here is what happened.
The nurses were very busy. With pain management, it’s important to stay ahead of the curve.
I was due for my Tylenol dosage at 2pm. The nurses were busy, however, and I had to wait until 2:45 before someone showed up. The pain had spiked by that point from a manageable 4–5 level up to a 7. Instead of a Tylenol, I needed a Hydrocodone to get the pain under control.
With pain management, it’s important to stay ahead of the curve.
I suggested to the nurse it might be nice just to let me have a container of pills…
Before bed I took a Hydrocodone.
April 28th: Only Tylenol all day. I decided not to take a Hydrocodone before bed. Instead, I had an extra long session of listening to classic hymns before drifting off to bed. I felt little discomfort and did not need pain medication.
April 29th: Discharged. Picked up a prescription for Hydrocodone but have only used 2 of them since.
The first night I was home I took a pain pill as a precaution to make sure I got a decent night’s sleep. A couple of days later, I accidentally rolled over my wound and the sharp pain made me glad I had the pain pills.
Aside from that, I have used no pain medication since coming home from the hospital. Not even a Tylenol. I have used spiritual music, prayer and active engagement to keep myself from feeling pain. It is working for me.
Is prayer a valid way to deal with pain?
There is a fair body of research that shows a correlation between prayer and pain relief after medical procedures.
Obviously the studies do not address the existence of God or other metaphysical or philosophical points. Rather, the question that is addressed — is there any correlation between prayer and pain reduction? And the answer seems to be, yes.
Of course, one issue is that it’s hard to quantify these things.
With a pill, you know you are getting, say, 30mg of a particular drug. Clinical trials have been done and there is a huge amount of data. With prayer for pain relief — there are just so many questions and it’s very hard to measure or quantify exactly what is going on.
In my particular case, the issue is more complicated because it wasn’t prayer per se that relieved my pain. Rather, I played beautiful hymns that spoke to me and sang along in a low voice. I tried to keep from disturbing anyone else!
My personal experience — every time I responded to the physical pain of my surgery with hymns, I experienced relief.
Since it helped me, I’m personally going on a limb and saying it’s valid, even if it is a placebo.
The fact is, prayer only works for me because I believe it does.
If you are not a person of faith, whether your faith is Buddhism, Islam or a belief in the glory of cats, pain relief through faith will not work. Belief is the essential component when it comes to faith.
What if you are not a person of faith? Can you still find pain relief outside of a pill?
And, in fact, you should seek out non-medicated ways to deal with your pain for many reasons, such as:
- All drugs have side effects. Every single one. By minimizing medication, you reduce side effects.
- When it comes to powerful pain medications such as opiates, addiction is a very real issue.
- Allowing patients to better direct their own pain relief empowers the patient
What are some other alternatives for pain relief?
There are many modalities that you can try. I have tried some of these myself and will share my experience in those cases.
Meditation: While I was finding hymns on my laptop, I also found many YouTube channels that had guided meditations for pain relief. While I did not try these myself — they do seem to be quite popular. Mindfulness and meditation do seem to help many people manage pain. There has also been a body of work done in which brain waves have been analyzed and there seems to be a correlation between certain mental states and pain relief. If you are experiencing pain, I would certainly give meditation and mindfulness a try.
Aromatherapy: When I had my mastectomy a few years ago, a friend brought a diffuser to my hospital room that filled the space with the essence of lavender oil. It sounds hokey but it actually did help. My personal experience was not pain relief so much as a greater general sense of calm. However, studies have been done where patients have expressed measurable pain relief.
Biofeedback: This is not something I’ve personally tried. It is a technique whereby a patient is taught to consciously affect the function of the body. For example, biofeedback may be used to help someone slow down their heart beat or reduce muscle tension or blood pressure. By adjusting these functions, hopefully pain can also be decreased. Of the types of biofeedback used, electromyography, or EMG, seems the most effective.
Yoga: My parents are from India, and I remember, as a little girl, hearing about yogis who could drastically slow their own heart beats and do other mystifying feats of control. Unfortunately, if your goal is to totally manage pain through yoga — it takes years of dedication to really achieve mastery. That being said — yoga offers many techniques that can help manage pain that are essentially gentle stretches. Because it is a physical exercise, however, I would not advise trying without having supervision via a physical therapist or medical practitioner.
Directed Distraction: This is a technique I tried during my last stay in the hospital along with the spiritual hymns. I made the effort to get engaged. I’d ask questions and socially engage with the nurses. I tried researching online. I put on travel videos and focused on bucket list locations. Basically, I tried to focus on things outside of myself. It helped.
There are also many other techniques that can be used to manage pain that do not come from pills — acupuncture, massage, hypnotherapy, etc., are all methods that have been used.
Prepare for the Pain Beforehand
The best way to deal with after surgical pain is to have a plan in place beforehand.
Decide ahead of time what methods you’d like to try. Make sure you will have the tools you’ll need. This could mean making sure a friend brings your aromatherapy oils or your meditation CDs to your hospital room.
If you are a person of faith, pray with loved ones before the surgery and ask God to help you manage your pain.
Advocate for yourself and empower yourself before your surgery.
When you take control of your treatment plan to the extent that you can — you can minimize your own fear of pain and feel better able to cope with the stress of surgery and pain management.
I thank God that I was able to get through my surgery with the minimum of medication. However, I am not an advocate of anyone suffering pain. I think it is important for people to be pain free so that they can heal.
If you are in pain — ask for help. If the only way to deal with the pain is to take drugs — take them. Do not try to be a hero. Do not suffer if you can get pain relief.
The reason to try to minimize drugs is not so you can prove you are tough. It is because, while drugs can be a blessing, they can also have side effects. That is why it’s good to incorporate alternative modalities into your pain management plan.
Ultimately, you need to listen to your own body. You need to do what is best for yourself.
I hope this article helps you. I hope that if you have surgery scheduled that it goes well and that your experience of pain is minimal.