How Much Pain Is Acceptable After Surgery?

Surgery Pain, Pain After Surgery, Surgical Pain
Pain After Surgery. Image: © Andrea Morini/Getty Images

Question: My doctor says he will work hard to make sure my pain is well controlled, but I will still have pain. Why doesn’t he just give me better pain medication?


Some pain after surgery is expected. The goal of pain management is to make the pain manageable, or to significantly reduce your pain. This allows you to get through your day, to take care of yourself and continue with the healing process.

There are several reasons that pain medication is given with the intention of reducing pain, not eliminating pain. It is possible to give too much pain medication. It can interfere with your breathing and can cause sedation beyond what is safe. Many pain medications also cause constipation, which can become a major surgical complication, depending upon the type of surgery you have had.  More pain medication can mean more severe constipation.

In some ways, pain protects you. If something hurts, you generally stop doing whatever is causing the pain and investigate. For example, if your foot suddenly hurt every time you took a step, you would stop and look at your foot, and perhaps find a splinter. If you didn’t feel that pain, you would not know that there was a problem. The same is true after surgery. An increase in pain near your incision, after several days of the pain getting slowly better, would certainly raise red flags, as would pain that cannot be controlled.

Too much pain after surgery is not a good thing, and you shouldn’t “gut it out.” If it hurts to breathe deeply, or to cough, you may find yourself breathing shallowly, which can lead to complications like pneumonia. Patients heal faster when their pain is controlled, so don’t skip your pain medication unless you truly do not need it.

 It is reasonable to aim for pain that is a 2-3 out of 10, with zero being no pain and ten being the worst pain you can imagine.  

If you are concerned about the level of pain control you will have after surgery, speak with your surgeon before and after your surgery. You may need to provide details on your level of pain, which will help your doctor, and the nursing staff, better understand your pain needs and adjust your medication accordingly. If your pain is unexpectedly severe, you may need to see your surgeon to rule out an unexpected complication. 


Pain Control After Surgery. Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Accessed November, 2009

Relief For Pain After Surgery. UPMC. Accessed December, 2009.

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