Pain after surgery

Types of pain

You will have pain after surgery.  Together, you and your health care team will create a pain plan that is right for you.

You and your health care team will also establish a "pain goal" - the amount of acceptable pain you can handle.  Your health care team will help you balance your pain so you are able to do your physical therapy and activities of daily living.

Pain scale

Using a number scale (0 to 10) to rate your pain will help the health care team members know how severe your pain is and help them make decisions about how to treat it.

Allina Health Pain Assessment Scale

Your role in creating a pain plan

After surgery, it is common to have pain. A member of your health care team will monitor your pain level often and help you review treatment options.

All of the following information will help your health care team prescribe the right medicine and therapy for your pain, and prevent problems (complications).  Tell a member of your health care team:

  • if you have allergies or reactions to pain medicine(s)
  • what methods of pain control have worked or have not worked well in the past
  • where you feel pain and how much pain you have (use words to describe how the pain feels.)
  • what makes your pain better or worse
  • if your pain starts to get worse or you have new pain
  • what vitamins, herbal and natural products you are taking
  • if you drink more than two alcoholic drinks each day.

Treatments for pain

If you have short-term or sudden pain from surgery, injury or illness, opioid pain medicine may help you to have less pain.  Opioid pain medicine is one strategy out of many that you many use to have less pain and a speedier recovery.

The goal of opioid pain medicine is to reduce pain when it is most intense during your recovery.  It is important to switch to non-opioid pain medicines as soon as you are able.

How to relieve pain or discomfort without medicine

Medicines are a great way to relieve pain.  However, sometimes they don't last long enough or cause too many side effects.

Your nurse can give you many ways to relieve pain or discomfort that don't involve medicine.  Please ask your nurse for more information about any of the following treatments.


Aromatherapy uses essential oils to encourage your body's natural ability to relax and heal.  Studies have shown that using aromatherapy helps reduce pain, anxiety, upset stomach (nausea) and being unable to sleep (insomnia).


Spending too much time lying down or sitting in one position can cause pain, muscle cramps or fatigue.  Going for a walk can help reduce discomfort and upset stomach.  By being active, you shorten your recovery time and you lower your risk for pneumonia, blood clots, and constipation.

Back rub or massage

Massage helps to reduce pain, anxiety, muscle tension and stress.

Effleurage (gentle massage)

Effleurage is a type of gentle massage that involves little to no pressure.  It uses gentle strokes on your skin to relax your muscles and helps gets your blood flowing.  It is good if you don't like or don't want a regular massage.


Standing under a hot shower can reduce pain, ease sore muscles and help you relax.

Breathing and relaxation

Your nurse can show you some easy breathing exercises that can reduce pain.  This helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure and increase blood flow to your muscles.  Relaxation techniques are shown to increase mood and reduce feelings of stress.

Changes to your environment

Simple things like dimming the lights, lowering the curtains, turning off the TV, closing the door or adjusting the temperature in your room can help you rest and relax.  These changes can also help if you have headaches or migraines.

Ice or cold pack

Cold reduces discomfort and swelling (inflammation) by numbing nerve endings.  It is great to help ease pain after surgery.  It can also be used for back pain, arthritis and headaches.  Use ice or a cold pack for 20 minutes at one time.

Talk with your nurse about how often you can use ice to help prevent skin damage.

Change positions in bed

You may not be able to get out of bed.  Changing the position of your body in the bed often - every 2 hours - can reduce pain and discomfort.  Making sure your hips, back and head are in proper alignment can be a great way to prevent muscle strains, joint or back pain.

A member of your health care team will help you change positions.


Activity and moving is important for your recovery.  However, you may do more activity than your body can tolerate.  Allowing your body to rest is also important when recovering from surgery.

Pace your activities and movements with rest.  As you recover, slowly do more activities.


Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Knee Replacement, seventh edition, ortho-ah-90140
First Published: 10/01/2000
Last Reviewed: 02/01/2020


Pain management after surgery

These four videos review pain expectations, rating your pain, pain treatment options and home pain management.

Video iconWatch all four modules.

Peripheral nerve block: Pain control after surgery

This 24-minute video explains what a peripheral nerve block is and how you can use it to control pain in the hospital and after you return home.

Video iconWatch the full video or in two- to three-minute segments.

Having no pain while in the hospital is not realistic, but pain can be controlled.

Your health care team will work closely with you to help manage your pain during your hospital stay and when you return home.

You and your health care team will establish a "pain goal"—the amount of acceptable pain you can tolerate during your hospital stay.

For most people, a pain goal of 3 or 4 out of 10 is an OK pain level that balances pain control with your ability to do physical therapy and daily activities.
You can expect your pain to lessen as you heal. Your health care team will work with you to help manage your symptoms with medicines and other methods. 

When medicines are used correctly to manage pain, addiction rarely occurs. Please talk with a member of your health care team if you have concerns.
Take pain medicine when pain first begins. If you know your pain may get worse with activity, take your pain medicine before the activity.

Do not wait for pain to get worse before taking medicine. Tablets or pills may take up to 30 minutes to begin working. Timing of when to take medicines is important.

Talk to a member of your health care team about how to time your pain medicines before therapy or activity.