One of the biggest fears for those in recovery is injuring themselves and needing surgery. Since addiction recovery is a lifelong process, we’ll likely face surgery at one point or another. It may feel like the world is crashing down around you when you can break free from the grip of addiction but then face something entirely out of your control. We understand getting sober was challenging, but as you’ve found out, the reward of living life sober has been more than you could have expected.
Facing surgery in recovery requires a new level of willpower you might have thought you weren’t capable of, and as you know, recovery requires complete abstinence from drugs and alcohol. However, you might wonder if there are any exceptions. If you’re under a doctor’s supervision in the hospital, is it safe? How can you deal with severe discomfort and post-surgical pain after you’ve finished the procedure?
No one is expected to forgo surgery because they’re in the recovery process, but it’s crucial to understand if you’re in recovery, there are potential risks associated with pain management during addiction recovery. One study shows that millions of American’s found themselves addicted to drugs as they recovered from a simple surgery. In contrast, others obtained billions of unused pain medicines that are prescribed each year for post-surgical treatment.
As was mentioned above, breaking free from addiction is a challenging process, and to find yourself right back where you started after surgery is disheartening. Relapsing can be fatal, and ending up in a terrible place because of a standard medical procedure would be awful. Fortunately, there are many ways to prevent substance abuse and take charge of your life.
If you’re tasked with getting a major surgical procedure, and your surgeon has advised you that it will cause significant pain, you don’t need to turn down prescription painkillers. If you’ve gone over the risks with your surgeon and they feel the benefits outweigh the risks, it’s worth looking into. With that said, an opioid medication must only be used for a short period, under strict monitoring by the treating surgeon, and only when the pain has reached unbearable levels.
As a patient, it’s on you to be honest and upfront with your surgeon about your substance abuse history. It will better equip your doctor to come up with solutions that meet your needs. If you have been prescribed opioid medication, it might be worth it to have your loved one hold onto them and dispense only when needed.
If you find yourself needing a refill, you should speak with the treating surgeon and agree that you’ll not get one without a face-to-face appointment to discuss pain levels. In some cases, post-surgical pain will subside in a few days, meaning you don’t need medication or giving you the option to taper off potent narcotics smoothly and move to over-the-counter options. In the event of serious surgery, it may not be this easy, and honesty will go a long way.
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Although opioid painkillers might be necessary for dire circumstances, they aren’t in every situation to treat pain after surgery. Other milder medications like ibuprofen (Motrin), acetaminophen (Tylenol), and naproxen (Aleve) are effective means of managing pain and soreness after surgery. They are considered non-addictive over-the-counter medications that are excellent alternatives to more potent drugs for short-term management of discomfort and pain.
There are other means of treating pain that doesn’t involve addictive drugs. A study published by JAMA highlights the most commonly used non-pharmaceutical treatment for pain after knee replacement surgery. Among these treatments are cold and heat, electrotherapy, acupuncture, and continuous passive motion (CPM). Although some were more effective than others for post-operative pain, some evidence suggests that electrotherapy and acupuncture help reduce opioid use post-surgery.
Going through surgery during your recovery journey is frightening, but it doesn’t always have to lead to relapse. Even if you are faced with a setback or struggling with substance abuse, help is available to you.
Unfortunately, despite their best attempts, relapsing after sustaining a physical injury or going through surgery happens. Even when using opioids as prescribed, or in small doses, can lead to cravings and a return to their addiction. Following instructions the doctors give is enough to wake the sleeping giant that is our addiction. As much as we try, there are certain situations where we can’t treat pain after surgery with opioids.
If you’re concerned that either yourself or a loved one has relapsed because of surgery, here are the most common signs you should look out for.
Other signs that someone is on the verge or has relapsed include:
Unfortunately, relapse is all too common for those in the recovery process, and experiencing it after surgery is a possibility. Those in recovery experience relapse rates at 40 to 60 percent. While many will experience shame and regret, others might continue, but it’s important to get help and build off the progress you’ve already made in recovery.
The sooner you commit yourself to treatment, the easier it will be. Depending on the drugs you’re using, it may require a stint in medical detox to help wean you off the drug safely. Once you complete this phase, you might be able to go through an outpatient program to continue building off your success previously in treatment.
You should never look at relapse as a failure. On the contrary, you should look at it only that your treatment plan needs to be adjusted. If you’ve relapsed because of surgery, that was something beyond your control, but recognizing it was a problem and seeking help is a sign of how far you’ve come.
NIDA (December 2020) Can Addiction Be Treated Successfully? from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery
NCBI (October 2011) Considering the Definition of Addiction from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3210595/
Above the Law (May 2018) Surgery and Addiction: Dangerous Bedfellows from https://abovethelaw.com/2018/05/surgery-and-addiction-dangerous-bedfellows/?rf=1
JAMA Surgery. (2017, October 18) Drug-Free Interventions to Reduce Pain or Opioid Consumption After Total Knee Arthroplasty. Tedesco, D. MD, Gori, D., MD, Desai, K. PhD. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamasurgery/fullarticle/2647847
HHS (December 2020) Opioids from https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/
GlobeNewswire (September 2017) Overprescribing of Postsurgical Opioids Poses a Serious Threat to Patients and their Communities from https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/09/26/1132719/0/en/New-Research-Overprescribing-of-Postsurgical-Opioids-Poses-a-Serious-Threat-to-Patients-and-their-Communities-Women-Undergoing-Surgery-are-at-Greatest-Risk.html