Like all posts here at Cirugia de Torax, this should serve as a guide for talking to your healthcare provider, and is not a substitute for medical advice.
Quite a few people have written in with questions about post-operative pain after thoracic surgery procedures so we will try to address those questions here.
1. What is a normal amount of pain after these procedures?
While no two people will experience pain the same, there are some general guidelines to consider. But to talk about this issue – we will need to refer to a basic pain scale which rates pain from 0 (no pain) to 10 – (excruciating, writhing pain, worst possible imaginable).
Unfortunately, for the majority of people who have thoracic surgery, there will be some pain and discomfort.
Pain depends on the procedure
In general, the intensity and duration of pain after thoracic procedures is related to the surgical approach – or the type of surgical incision used.
Patients with larger incisions like a sternotomy, thoracotomy or clamshell incision will have more pain, for a longer period of time than patients that have minimally invasive procedures like VATS because there is more trauma to the surrounding tissues. People with larger incisions (from ‘open surgeries’) are also more likely to develop neuralgia symptoms as they recover.
. (I will post pictures of the various incisions once I return home to my collection of surgical images).
Many patients will require narcotics or strong analgesics for the first few days but most surgeons will try to transition patients to anti-inflammatories after surgery.
Post-operative surgical pain is often related to inflammation and surgical manipulation of the chest wall, particularly in procedures such as pleurodesis, decortication or pleurectomy. For many patients this pain will diminish gradually over time – but lasts about 4 to 6 weeks.
This pain is often better managed with over the counter medications such as ibuprofen than with stronger narcotics. That’s because the medication helps to relieve the inflammation in addition to relieving pain. Anti-inflammatory medications also avoid the risks of oversedation, drowsiness and severe constipation that often comes with narcotics.
Use with caution
However, even though these medications are available without a prescription be sure to talk to your local pharmacist about dosing because these medications can damage the kidneys. Also, be sure to keep hydrated while taking this medications.
People with high blood pressure should be particularly cautious when taking over the counter anti-inflammatories because many of these medications have drug interactions with blood pressure medications.
2. “I had surgery three weeks ago, and I recently developed a burning sensation near the incision”
Neuralgias after surgery
For many patients, the development of a neuralgia is a temporary effect and is part of the healing process. However, it can be quite disturbing if patients are unprepared. Neuralgic pain is often described as a burning or stinging sensation that extends across the chest wall from the initial incision area. Patients also describe it as a ‘pins and needles’ sensation or “like when your foot falls asleep”. This usually develops a few weeks after surgery as the nerves heal from the surgery itself.
It the discomfort is unmanageable, or persists beyond a few weeks, a return visit to your surgeon is warranted. He/She can prescribe medications like gabapentin which will soothe the irritated nerves and lessen the sensations. However, these medications may take some time to reach full effect.
Range of motion and exercise after surgery
Exercise limitations are related to the type of incision.
Sternotomy incisions/ sternotomy precautions
If you have a sternotomy incision – (an incision through the breast bone at the center of your chest), this incision requires strict precautions to prevent re-injury to the area. Since the sternal bone was cut, patients are usually restricted from lifting anything greater than 10 pounds for 6 to 12 weeks, and to avoid pushing, pulling or placing stress on the incision. Patients are also restricted from driving until bone healing is well underway. (Be sure to attend a rehab program or physical therapy program to learn the proper way to exercise during this time period).
Patients will also need to take care to prevent a surgical skin infection or something more serious like mediastinitis. The includes prohibitions against tub bathing/ soaking, swimming or over- aggressive cleaning of the incision with harsh abrasives like hydrogen peroxide or anti-bacterial soaps. These chemicals actually do more harm than good in most cases by destroying the newly healing tissue. A good rule of thumb to remember (unless your doctor says otherwise): No creams or lotions to your incisions until the scabs fall off.
With a large thoracotomy incision, most patients will be restricted from lifting any items greater than 10 pounds on the surgery side for around two weeks. However, unlike sternotomy patients – we want you to use and exercise that arm daily – otherwise patients have a risk of developing a ‘disuse’ syndrome. One of the common exercises after a thoracotomy is called the spider crawl. This exercise helps the muscles to heal and prevent long-term disability or problems. The physiotherapist at your local hospital should have a list of several others that they can teach you to practice at home.
The spider crawl
In this example, the patient had a left thoracotomy:
1. Stand with your surgical side within arm’s length of the wall.
Now, use your hand to “walk” up the wall, similar to a spider crawling.
Continue to walk your hand up the wall until your arm is fully extended.
Perform this exercise (or similar ones) for several minutes 5-6 times a day. As you can see – it is fast and easy to do.
For patients with minimally invasive procedures – there are very few exercise restrictions, except no heavy lifting for 2 to 3 weeks (this is not the time to help your neighbor move his television.)
General incision care guidelines are similar to that for sternotomy patients – no soaking or bathing (showering is usually okay), no creams or lotions and no anti-bacterial soaps/ hydrogen peroxide/ harsh cleaners.
Whats NOT normal – when it’s time to call your surgeon
– dramatic increase in pain not associated with activity (i.e. lifting or reaching). If your pain has been a “4” for several days and suddenly increases to an “8”
– If the quality of the pain changes – ie. if it was a dull ache and becomes a stabbing pain.
– any breathlessness, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
– Any increase in redness, or swelling around your incisions. Incisions may be pink and swollen for the first 2-3 days, but any increase after that warrants a ‘wound check’ by your surgeon
– Any fresh bleeding – bright red blood. A small amount of drainage (from chest tube sites) that is light pink, clear or yellow in nature may be normal for the first few days.
– Drainage from the other sites (not chest tube sites) such as your primary incision is not normal and may be a sign of a developing infection.
– Fever, particularly fever greater than 101.5 – may be a sign of an infection.
– If you are diabetic, and your blood sugars become elevated at home, this may also be a sign of infection. (Elevation in the first few days is normal, and is often treated with insulin – particularly if you are in the hospital.
– Pain that persists beyond 3 months may be a sign of nerve damage (and you will need additional medications / therapies).