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How Much Pain will I Experience After Surgery?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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Pain varies after a surgery. Some minor surgeries involve very little pain while one is recovering. Generally the amount felt after a surgery depends upon the type of surgery, and the degree to which it can be controlled by medication.

Surgeries that are minor, like removing a basal cell mole, or having a root canal tend to be associated with a small amount of pain at the site of surgery that may last a day or two. Usually this can be well controlled with narcotic medications like codeine.

Pain described as throbbing after the first couple of days may suggest infection. Particularly when someone has had a mole removed, or major surgery on the mouth, pain that one can feel constantly may indicate that the surgical wound has been exposed to bacteria.

Generally a doctor will tell one how many days one can expect pain, and what degree of discomfort one can expect. Thus if a doctor tells one to expect minor discomfort, and instead one has major pain, one should probably see a physician to rule out infection and to better control medications.

The problem with classifying pain is that perception of it influences how much it is felt. Some people have a lower threshold than do others. If one is aware of this, it should be mentioned and stressed during any pre-surgery interviews. What a patient describes as major pain might generally be considered minor by others. However, no doctor wishes someone to suffer unnecessarily and may prescribe stronger medication for the patient with a lower pain threshold.

Some surgeries are associated with more painful recoveries. For example an open-heart surgery can be painful afterwards, because usually the doctor must break the sternum in order to gain access to the heart. The sternum is rewired after the heart is repaired, but one is now dealing with a broken bone, in an area that is difficult to cast.

Certain movements after a sternum has been broken, such as raising the arms above the head can provoke a great deal of pain during the first few weeks. However, without infection, most find that this gradually lessens, and the most discomfort occurs in the first week after a heart surgery.

Most orthopedic surgeries, like hip or knee replacements are associated with more discomfort. Physical therapy to regain use of an afflicted limb or joint may also be painful. Again, perception influences pain, and mood can also affect what is felt.

Surgeries done on internal organs, such as the removal of the appendix may not be associated with a great deal of pain after the first couple of days. Most often, the most painful aspect after a surgery is the incision and stitches.

Some plastic surgery procedures are associated with minor to moderate pain. For example massive liposuction may cause bruising that can last for several weeks. Minor liposuction, conversely, may cause only a small amount of discomfort.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon33317 — On Jun 04, 2009

anon17146 - Have you tried sleeping with a pillow or 2 supporting your back while laying on your side?

I had major open-heart surgery to replace a valve and remove a blockage just 2 weeks ago. Sleeping on either side does hurt, but I have found a pillow against my back and putting my weight on the pillow so i'm still half laying on my back but partly on my side has helped a lot.

By anon31000 — On Apr 28, 2009

I had open heart surgery to repair a leaking valve and a hole in my heart in march 2009. I too have difficulty laying down on my side, particularly the left more than the right. I also experience a sore spot in the middle on the left side. It makes my left breast feel sore or like a stiff muscle.

By cpace — On Jan 30, 2009

Last year I had a pretty interesting surgery for removal of an 11cm tumor which engulfed my adrenal gland. It took about 4 hours, and I lost a lot of blood. I'm sure no one has gone through exactly the same thing, but I was wondering if anyone out there has experienced open surgery (large incision from middle of ribs to side)for something similar like removal of a kidney or adrenal gland. I'm having a hard time finding anyone who can relate to the recovery I went through. My husband really has a hard time understanding the pain & depression I suffered, so much so that I'm wondering if I was just a wimp and complained too much. I'd appreciate any feedback.

By WGwriter — On Aug 23, 2008

I think it's actually really important to mention this to your physician, or even telephone the surgeon. It's always a good idea to note anything unusual, though I think that pain after surgery to the chest is pretty common. What you'd want to avoid though is the pain being a symptom of continuing heart problems and not the surgery, which is why it definitely should be discussed.

By anon17146 — On Aug 23, 2008

I have been having pain in the ribs under my arms since my open heart surgery. It has made it hard to sleep on my sides. It does not hurt to raise my arms. It is only when pressure is applied trying to lay on my side. My surgery was back in March of this year. Does anyone know if this a normal side effect from the surgery and having your ribs spread?

Or am to expect something else may be happening?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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