Wound Care After Surgery: Pain

Surgery is done by cutting through layers of skin, fatty tissue, muscle, and sometimes bone and cartilage. Stitches or staples are used to close all layers of the wound. The stitches on the inside will dissolve on their own in a few weeks. Any stitches or staples used on the outside are often removed in about 7 to 14 days, depending on the location.

It's normal to feel pain at the incision site. The pain decreases as the wound heals.

Pain that gets worse any time after surgery can be a sign of a problem, such as:

  • Infection

  • Separation of wound edges

  • Collection of blood or fluid below the skin

Home care

Different types of surgery require different types of care and dressing changes. It's important to follow all instructions and advice from your surgeon, as well as other members of your healthcare team. Any questions you have about wound care instructions before your discharge. Sometimes it's helpful to have a friend or family member listen with you when you get discharge instructions.

Wound care

  • If you smoke, get help to quit. Smoking interferes with wound healing. Ask your doctor about ways to quit.

  • Keep the wound clean, as directed by your healthcare provider.

  • Change the dressing as directed. Change the dressing sooner if it becomes wet or stained with blood or fluid from the wound.

  • Bathe with a sponge (no shower or tub baths) for the first few days after surgery, or until there is no more drainage from the wound. Unless you received different instructions from your surgeon, you can then shower. Don't soak the area in water (no baths or swimming) until the stitches, staples, or butterfly bandages are removed and any wound opening has dried out and healed.

Changing the dressing

  • Scrub your hands with soap and clean, running water for at least 20 seconds before and after changing the dressings.

  • Carefully remove the dressing and tape; don’t just yank it off. If it sticks to the wound, you may need to wet it a little to remove it, unless your healthcare provider told you not to wet it.

  • Wash your hands again before putting on a new, clean dressing.

  • Gently clean the wound with clean water (or saline) using gauze or a clean washcloth. Don't rub it or pick at it.

  • Don't use soap, alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, or any other cleanser on the wound.

  • If you were told to dry the wound before putting on a new dressing, gently pat it dry. Don't rub.

  • Put the old dressing in a plastic bag that seals at the top, and throw it out. Don't reuse it.

  • Scrub your hands with soap and water again for 20 seconds when you are done.

Types of dressings

Your healthcare team will tell you what type of dressing to put on your wound. Follow your healthcare team’s instructions carefully, and contact them if you have any questions. Two common types of dressings are described below. You may have one of these or another type.

  • Dry dressing. Use dry gauze or pad.

  • Wet-to-dry dressing. Wet the gauze, and squeeze out the excess water (or saline), before putting it on. Then, cover this with a dry pad.

Medicines

  • If you were given antibiotics, take them until they are used up or your healthcare provider tells you to stop. It's important to finish the antibiotics even though you may feel better.

  • You can take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain, unless you were given a different pain medicine to use. Note: If you have chronic liver or kidney disease, have ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding, or are taking blood thinner medicines, talk with your healthcare provider before using these medicines.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised, for your next wound check or removal of your stitches, staples, or tape.

  • If a wound culture was done, you'll be told if the results will affect your treatment. You can call as directed for the results.

  • If imaging tests, such as X-rays, an ultrasound, or CT scan were done, they'll be reviewed by a specialist. You'll be told of the results, especially if they affect treatment.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble breathing or swallowing

  • Wheezing

  • Hoarse voice or trouble speaking

  • Extreme confusion

  • Extreme drowsiness or trouble awakening

  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

  • Rapid heart rate or very slow heart rate

  • Vomiting blood, or large amounts of blood in stool

  • Discomfort in the center of the chest that feels like pressure, squeezing, a sense of fullness, or pain.

  • Discomfort or pain in other upper body areas, such as the back, one or both arms, neck, jaw, or stomach

  • Stroke 911 symptoms (spot a stroke FAST):

    • F: Face drooping. One side of the face is numb or droops.

    • A: Arm weakness. One arm feels weak or numb.

    • S: Speech difficulty. Speech is slurred, or the person is unable to speak.

    • T: Time to call 911. Even if the symptoms go away, call 911.

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Increasing pain at the site of surgery

  • Fever of 100.4º F (38º C) or higher, or as directed by your provider

  • Redness around the wound

  • Fluid, pus, or blood draining from the wound

  • Vomiting, constipation, or diarrhea

  • Symptoms get worse or new symptoms appear

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