How to Access Opioid Alternatives After Surgery

Pain management after medical procedures can be stressful for people with a history of addiction. But prescription pills aren’t the only option.

Knee replacement. Back surgery. Wisdom teeth removal. Chances are that, at some point in your life, you’ll need to have a routine medical procedure that will require pain management.

While opioids are a safe and effective choice for some, they’re not right for everyone.

But if you’re in recovery or have a family history of addiction, this can be a stressful experience. You may be nervous about how you’ll manage your pain, and about your exposure to medications like prescription opioids.

Since painkillers like opioids are often the default choice during many medical procedures, it’s important to start a conversation with your doctor before you make plans for your procedure.

Here’s some helpful background information that can help you make decisions about your care.

Why the right pain management plan matters

Pain control is important. 

No two people experience pain the same way.

Not just for your comfort, but also to speed your healing, to avoid complications, and to prevent any post-op pain from becoming chronic, long-term pain that can be difficult to manage.

There are many factors that impact how much pain you might feel. Some are physical and some are psychological, but they’re all very real. In some cases, opioids are an appropriate option to manage your short-term or acute pain—but understanding all of your options is also important.

Here’s how pain is commonly managed during and after surgery:


Anesthetics such as lidocaine and bupivacaine are numbing medications that can be injected during surgery to manage pain. Anesthetics are injected directly into the surgical site to numb the area and provide local pain relief where the surgery occurred for anywhere from a few hours to a few days after the procedure. If your surgeon wants to prolong the effect, he or she may administer a long-acting version that slowly releases the numbing medication over time, which can help reduce or completely eliminate the need for opioids later.

Non-opioid pain relievers

Non-opioid pain relievers contain active ingredients like aspirin, acetaminophen, or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID). They include medications like Advil, Tylenol, naproxen (Aleve), and ibuprofen, along with others. Many of these drugs are available over the counter without a prescription, although heavier doses of some NSAID treatments require a prescription. While generally considered safe, each of these medications carry their own specific sets of risks.

Prescription opioids

Opioids are powerful pain relievers that contain opiates as the active ingredient. They include medications like Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, and codeine, among others. These drugs can be safe and effective if taken properly for a short period of time. But when prescribed improperly, taken incorrectly, or taken for too long, it’s possible to become addicted to or dependent on them. If you’re in recovery or have a family history of addiction, have a discussion with your doctor about the safest option for you.

After surgery, you have even more pain management options.

These include everything from anesthetics to complementary medicine and even alternative medicine options like acupuncture. By varying the types of pain medicines used, your doctor can avoid exposing you to very high doses of any one medication, which can help reduce your chances of experiencing side effects. If this is something you’re interested in, be sure to tell your doctor.

6 ways to reduce your opioid risk

Let’s say you speak with your doctor and you do decide to include opioids in your treatment plan. Here’s a list of to-dos that will keep your plan safe and effective:

  • If you have a caregiver, bring that person to your appointments about pain management
  • Ask your doctor for counseling on the potential dangers of any medication
  • Ask if a lower dosage is right for you
  • Ask if you should start with a shorter prescription or fewer pills
  • Ask about non-opioid options
  • Ask about multimodal pain management, which includes a variety of pain treatments and uses fewer opioids

Download these to-dos as a printable checklist.

In addition to these ideas, always take your medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor, and never take prescriptions for longer than absolutely necessary. If you’ve got medication left over, be sure to safely dispose of it. Learn how.

Remember, you have power over your medical care. Your needs and decisions are important. Don’t be afraid to speak up throughout the planning process. By having these conversations, you can be sure to stay safe, healthy, and comfortable after any surgical procedure.                                                  

You can make a difference

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Content created in partnership with Choices Matter

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