Nerve Pain After Abdominal Surgery

Abdominal and Pelvic Surgery and Chronic Nerve Pain

A women with abdominal pain.
Why do some people experience chronic nerve pain following abdominal surgery?. IAN HOOTON/Getty Images

Unfortunately, abdominal surgery can sometimes lead to chronic abdominal nerve pain or chronic pelvic nerve pain. For people whose abdominal or pelvic nerves have been cut, stretched or otherwise damaged during abdominal surgery, such as an appendectomy, gynecological surgery or some types of hernia repair, the condition can be very disabling.

It's not certain how often this occurs, but we are learning that nerve pain following surgery is much more common than once thought.

Estimates are scattered, but in some cases, such as with abdominal hysterectomies and hernia repairs, up to a fourth of people may have some ongoing chronic nerve pain.

This can be frightening to read if you are planning on having surgery, but there are some things you may be able to do as a patient that could reduce your risk, and research is in progress looking at both ways to reduce the risk of, and treat the occurrence of, nerve pain after surgery.

Nerve Pain After Abdominal Surgery

Abdominal surgery has been known, in some cases, to cause damage to the ilio-inguinal nerve, the ilio-hypogastric nerve and the genitofemoral nerve, all of which can lead to pelvic nerve pain, or pelvic neuropathic pain. That said, there is not always a simple relationship between nerve damage and the later experience of nerve related pain. Here are a few reasons why this might happen:

  • Pelvic nerves are close to incisional sites. During routine abdominal and pelvic surgeries, the ilio-hypogastric and ilio-inguinal nerves are often directly in the line of fire. Due to anatomical differences between people, even the most skilled surgeons have the potential to sever these nerves.
  • Anatomically, pelvic nerves are different in each person. Pelvic nerve structure can vary greatly from person to person. In some people, the nerves sit under the abdominal muscles. In other people, they may pass right through them. Some people have more pelvic nerve branches than others. Avoiding pelvic nerve damage during surgery is not easy when there are so many potential variations.
  • Stretching pelvic nerves can also cause damage. You don’t have to have your pelvic nerves cut or nicked in order to suffer from chronic pelvic nerve pain. Sometimes, the nerves are stretched enough during surgery that damage is done.
  • Pelvic nerves may become compressed after surgery. Nerve entrapment—in sutures, staples or mesh—can also lead to pelvic nerve pain, and can occur after some types of abdominal and pelvic surgery.

Who Develops Chronic Pain (Nerve Pain) after Abdominal or Pelvic Surgery?

Just as it is not often known exactly what causes chronic pain after surgery, it isn't certain what the risk factors are for developing chronic pain. Chronic pain occurs more often in younger people and is more likely to occur when the operation is more serious in nature. By far the most common predictor of chronic abdominal or pelvic pain after surgery is the severity of acute pain right after the surgery.

Abdominal Pain and Cutaneous Nerve Entrapment

An significant but under-recognized cause of chronic abdominal pain after surgery is cutaneous nerve entrapment.

This occurs when nerves near the surface of the abdomen become entrapped as they pass through the rectus muscle. This is thought to be the cause for around 30 percent of cases of chronic pain after abdominal surgery. Diagnosis can be made by injecting a local anesthetic near the nerve (which can be visualized and done via ultrasound.) Since relative to many other causes of chronic abdominal pain after surgery nerve entrapment is "easy" to resolve, it's important that you mention this to your doctor if you are not getting answers.

If You're In Pain - When is it Considered Chronic?

Talk to your surgeon if you think your post-operative (post-surgery) pain may be unusual. Most of the time, stretched nerves will heal on their own with the proper care. And many times, nerves that are entrapped will resolve on their own when the suture is absorbed by the body. If you're still experiencing pain more than three months after your surgery, it's considered chronic pain.

Treating Chronic Abdominal and Pelvic Pain after Surgery

There are several possible treatments for chronic pelvic nerve pain that doesn't resolve on its own.

  • Medications - Your doctor may also recommend certain medications for the pain. The most commonly prescribed drugs for chronic pelvic nerve pain are tricyclic antidepressants and anticonvulsants such as Neurontin (gabapentin.) Newer medications such as Lyrica (pregabalin)have also been effective for some people. Although these medications weren't originally developed for treating pain, they have been found to relieve pain in some conditions. It's important to note that antidepressants that are prescribed for chronic pain are thought to work with pain receptors in the brain. In other words, your doctor is not prescribing these medications because she believes "your pain is in your head."
  • Nerve blocks are very effective for some people coping with chronic pelvic nerve pain.
  • TENS - TENS units or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation have helped some people cope with their pain.

Coping with Nerve Pain After Surgery

Most studies suggest that the best treatment of nerve pain is a combination of medications, other medical therapies, and lifestyle measures. What can you do yourself if you are suffering from pain?

  • Keep a pain journal - Writing in a pain journal can be very helpful when you suffer from chronic pain. Not only may it help you further understand your pain so that you can share your symptoms with your doctor, but it can be an effective way to determine what works and what doesn't work to manage your pain.
  • Mind/Body therapies - From meditation to yoga, "natural" remedies may not only decrease your pain, but can decrease the stress in your life that worsens your pain.

Considering Pelvic or Abdominal Surgery

If you are concerned about pain as you approach surgery, keep in mind that the majority of people who undergo abdominal surgery do not experience chronic nerve pain later on. And as more and more research becomes available, surgeons are using more advances techniques to avoid damage to pelvic nerves during abdominal and pelvic surgeries.

Lowering Your Risk of Chronic Pain after Surgery

Though we have a long way to go in determining the best ways to prevent and treat chronic pain following surgery, we do know of a strong predictor for pain that can be altered. Since the severity of acute post-operative pain is strongly linked with the risk for chronic pain, it would seem that aggressive treatment of post-operative pain would be imperative.

With treating post-surgical pain, studies continually show us that aggressive up-front management results in the best control of pain. In other words, you want to stay on top of your pain and not try to play "catch up" with pain medications.Talk to your surgeon about how much pain is acceptable after surgery.

Though we don't yet know if better management of post-op pain will reduce the risk of chronic pain later on, but very well may, there are other reasons as well to make sure your pain control is adequate directly following surgery.

Sources:

Beyaz, S., Ozocak, H., Ergonenc, T. et al. Chronic Postsurgical Pain and Neuropathic Symptoms after Abdominal Hysterectomy: A Silent Epidemic. Medicine (Baltimore). 2016. 95(33):e4484.

Clarke, S., and S. Kanakarajan. Abdominal Cutaneous Nerve Entrapment Syndrome. Continuing Education in Anaesthesia, Critical Care, and Pain. Published online 05/17/14.

Macrae, W. Chronic Post-Surgical Pain: 10 Years On. British Journal of Anaesthesia. 2008. 101(1):77-86.

Montes, A., Roca, G., Sabate, S. et al. Genetic and Clinical Factors Associated with Chronic Postsurgical Pain after Hernia Repair, Hysterectomy, and Thoracotomy: A Two-year Multicenter Cohort Study. Anesthesiology. 2015. 122(5):1123-41.

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