Because many of us come to a hysterectomy as surgery novices, one of the things that worries us most is the prospect of pain. Chat around at the water cooler or the hairdresser's and you'll hear plenty of scary stuff. But is that realistic? No, not really. Let's look at what we're facing.
You're entitled to a plan
No matter what previous experiences you may have had with surgeries and pain, a minimum expectation of the pre-op planning process is that you and your doctors develop a pain management plan. You should know how they anticipate dealing with the expected pain, what they plan to do if that is not adequate, and what alternatives they are holding in reserve. You should also know when you may have medication and how to get it, including what to take home with you and what to do if you run out. This is very very basic (however much doctors take it for granted and don't discuss it), and you have every right to ask for a discussion of it and to participate in making those decisions.
Immediate postop pain management
One thing that can be beneficial in dealing with pain in the first hours after surgery is the use, from the Recovery Room on, of a relatively new anti-inflammatory called Toradol. It is given IV, regularly, and it seems to keep the level of pain down such that narcotics may not be required or may be required only in lesser amounts than when they are used alone. It also seems to ease the transition to oral meds, particularly of the long-acting NSAID family (such as the 12-hour dose of naproxen), and does not carry the effects of the opiates (in either allergy or constipation).
[Update 12/20/04: FDA warning about naproxen: The FDA has issued warnings about possible heart damage that may be caused by using naproxen. More on this topic in this post.]
It is also reasonable to ask your anesthetist to medicate you for nausea before you wake up in Recovery, rather than waiting for you to request such medication because you are already nauseated. If you make this request at your pre-op appointment, they should be willing to honor it. And, generally speaking, if you can get past the immediate post-op period, nausea should no longer happen to you. In fact, nausea after the first few hours typically means you're being nauseated by something you're receiving after surgery, such as your pain med, not things you received during surgery.
Two fairly common pain management setups are the patient-administered IV and the epidural block. The former is a pump, connected to your IV, that contains morphine or demerol—very potent narcotics. The pump is set for a maximum dose per hour, but you may trigger it to deliver a dose whenever you need it, up to that maximum. This allows you to pre-medicate before doing something that you feel might cause pain (like getting up) and allows you to control the amount of medication you get. This pump is typically used for one to two days, and is gradually replaced by oral medication.
The epidural involves a pump supplying numbing medication into your spinal area, to block sensation from the lower part of your body. It is generally used in conjunction with spinal anesthesia. Women who use it tend to speak very highly of it, especially in terms of promotion of early mobility. It is only left in place for a day or two.
Another, lesser-used but still valuable technique is injecting the area of your incision with numbing medications or running a small continuous drip of medication to that area. This may or may not need to be your total pain coverage.
How bad will it be?
The goal of pain management is not oblivion. Even the best drugs cannot obliterate your awareness that you've had major surgery and your body wants you to be really really careful with it. There are also some tradeoffs with narcotic pain medications that need to be kept in mind: too much will cause you to stop breathing, and excessive use can cause respiratory suppression and pneumonia predisposition as well as increasing postop constipation.
The goal of pain management, then, is making the discomfort tolerable. Note that I don't say "pain." Rather, you are aiming for a level of not-too-bad when lying still and tolerable while moving and "ouch!" with injudicious movement. You have a right to this amount of coverage, but you may need (or you may need someone with you who will do this) to advocate for your needs with busy nursing staff. If your nurses are not responsive to your needs or you feel you are undergoing excessive delays in obtaining medication, you should contact your doctor to let him know this. Even during the night, there will be an answering service that can have the doctor on call for your surgeon's practice get back to you. You should not be left in pain due to lack of medication and the medication your doctor orders for you should provide adequate relief. If you have received your limit of pain medication without obtaining acceptable relief, your doctor should be able to switch to a different drug. We all have different physical responses to different drugs, and so some drugs work for some of us better than for others. The goal should be adequate pain relief.
What about the risk of addiction?
The addictive potential of postop narcotics is very low because you are taking them for pain relief, not for the sensation of taking the narcotics themselves. Taken in the amount necessary to control pain, the pain "uses up" much of the action of the narcotic and it does not provide the sensations that cause addicts to seek it out. The duration of postop use is not at all close to the amount of time required to create any physical addiction. Neither you nor your doctor should stint on your legitimate use of narcotic medications for pain relief.
That does not, however, mean that you should not take them for the shortest necessary time. Narcotics carry negative effects as part of their normal mechanism of actions. For example, they are quite constipating. Since gas and bowel motility are some of the most pressing concerns in the first couple postop weeks, it doesn't make sense to continue adding to that problem by taking narcotics longer than necessary.
The usual practice is to be on IV or injectable (narcotic) pain meds for a day or two postop. These are gradually replaced by oral drugs, usually those containing a narcotic such as codeine. Codeine and other oral narcotics have the same constipating effects as the injectables. So while they may be good at controlling pain, they are also not a great long term management drug. Many women go directly from injectables/IV narcotics to oral anti-inflammatories, or use anti-inflammatories to stretch the effects of oral narcotics. In the first few postop weeks at home, anti-inflammatories can gradually replace narcotics while providing still-adequate coverage.
One of the most convenient anti-inflammatory drugs is naprosyn (naproxen), because it has a 12-hour duration of action. This means you can take it at bedtime and still wake up with some in your system in the morning. Using the 4-6 hour anti-inflammatories can mean waking up in the morning in discomfort. Since some asthmatics or those with cardiovascular disease may be sensitive to this whole family of drugs, be sure to ask your doctor about what drugs you should take even when you are ready to leave the narcotics.
Now, all of this presupposes that you are not already on a pain management program or do not have an addictive problem. If this is the case, then you will obviously need to involve your therapists in your operative planning so that you meet your increased pain control needs without derailing your present level of control. The fact of a previous narcotic addiction should not mean that you cannot control your pain during your recovery, but it will obviously mean that you have a greater need for pre-planning and monitoring the situation.
Pain and medication on discharge from the hospital
By the time you are released from the hospital, you should be able to get around and get by, within the limits of exercise tolerance, on fairly mild oral medications. The gas/constipation problem is the source of the most discomfort in the first post-op week or so, and it yields better to specific medications/approaches (lots of fiber, drinking lots and lots of liquids, exercise, stool softeners) than to pain meds (and opiates are especially bad in that they slow your bowel activity down and compound the problem).
What about if my prescription runs out and I'm still hurting?
Your doctor sends you home from the hospital with a standard prescription. That doesn't mean that this is all you can have. If you have used the pills as directed and find that you are running out and will need more, call your doctor's office and let them know. Often, they are more than willing to call a refill to your pharmacy. Other times, they may suggest alternatives that will be effective for the point you're now at in recovery. Whatever the plan, don't feel you have to suffer once the first prescription runs out.
Do be sure, however, that you understand how and how often your take-home pain meds are to be taken. Typically the prescription reads something along the lines of "Take 1-2 every 4-6 hours as needed." That means that you may take them that often (if you need that level of pain relief), not that you must take them that often (to get any relief). All too often women in the fluster of getting ready to be discharged from the hospital are handed a fistful of papers and hear only "2 every 4 hours" and just tear through their prescription and wonder why, a few days later, the prescription that they thought was to last them till their two-week checkup is all used up. Those dose intervals are the most frequent at which you can safely use that medication; it's fine if you don't need to take it that often or if you find that you need only 1-2 in a whole day, just to give a little extra boost to your non-prescription medications.
On the other hand, if you need more medication than that or you feel that even at the largest/most frequent dose you're not getting adequate coverage, it's a good idea to call your doctor about this as well. Your prescription is based on your doctor's expectations of how you should be doing, given your surgery and the speed/extent of recovery he sees when he visits you in the hospital. If you are not progressing as he thought you might, you may need a recheck to be sure everything is going as it should. Your doctor makes treatment decisions based on what he sees in the hospital; he can't see you once you are at home, so if things change, it's your responsibility to let him know that.
You should expect, and demand if necessary, a reasonable and adult discussion of these things at your pre-op appointment. If your doctor is not willing to allow your participation in pain management planning or to discuss his plans with you, then you might be well advised to seek another consult. A surgery is about your needs, not the doctor's.