Major Surgery and Relapse

Major Surgery and How to Avoid a Relapse

There comes a time in many people’s lives when they must have surgery to stay healthy. There are lots of reasons why surgery might become necessary. For most, if their health care provider strongly suggests a surgery, they wouldn’t think twice about having it. But for an addict, the idea of surgery and, specifically, the post-op care, can be traumatizing.

For many people in recovery, the idea of having major surgery is frightening. The aftercare of injuries or operations is often a prescription of painkillers, and these pills are usually opiates. For someone with a hardwon sober lifestyle, the prospect of revisiting the effects of opiates, even those prescribed by a doctor, is daunting.

If you’ve been sober ten years or ten days, there are steps you can take to armor yourself against the fear of relapse. Look plainly at the situation, trust your doctors, maintain open communication with your loved ones, and limit your access to the painkillers.

Manage Your Expectations

From a sober point-of-view, looking back on your unsober life may be painful and unsettling. The prospect of having to be in the same headspace you used to be in when you were using is unnerving.

Opioid addiction is an incredibly tough habit to break, and those who know this best are those who have struggled with and broken away from an addiction to opiates.

However, the circumstances surrounding a major surgery and the ensuing pain management are quite different than your previous predilection for opiates. You now have tools to fight addiction, and you are more honest with yourself and those around you.

Without the lies and betrayal that often shroud addiction, you can be more clear-sighted and level-headed, and much more equipped to deal with what comes at you.

Additionally, when medication is pain-focused, it is quite different from using opiates in the throes of addiction, and you won’t have to worry about the horrors of withdrawal either. Medication tailored to your specific medical issues, like post-surgery pain, will eliminate the pain, but will rarely give you too much of an altered mindset.

Come Clean With Those You Love

When you’re ramping up to go into surgery, you will undoubtedly feel anxious for many reasons. It helps to tell those that you trust and love most what your worries are.

With a network of family, spouses, children, friends, and those who have also been through recovery, you can get the support you need to avoid any relapses or pitfalls due to the after-care of your surgery.

Trust Your Doctor

addiction and surgeryYour medical professional does not want to see you relapse and slip back into addiction, either. It’s their job to make sure that you don’t, to the best of their abilities.

A trusted medical professional understands your completely valid fears. They can help you manage them by considering your past when prescribing and providing facts about the process to help assuage your anxiety.

It is not easy sometimes to make these decisions. Nevertheless, if the surgery benefits far outweigh the relapse risks, your doctor needs to recommend the surgery.

Your doctor also needs to manage your pain post-op, as patients who experience a lot of unmanaged acute pain post-surgery can lose the motivation to heal by not partaking in physical therapy, walking, exercising, or sleeping well.

And this is where Right Path can provide a worry free, no-relapse aid in dealing with your pain. First, we directly communicate with your surgical team to advise on what is the current recommendation for perioperative management of a client on Buprenorphine.

Second, by offering a unique combination of opiate with Naltrexone capsules, we assure you have the pain controlled on one hand, and help assure you will not relapse on opiates. The Naltrexone prevents the “high” you get when taking the opiates. There are a variety of short and long acting doses available to enable your surgical team to tailor your dosage to your exact pain needs.

Don’t Hold the Pills

At least to start with, it may be a good idea for you to choose someone close to you, preferably who lives in the same house, to keep the pills for you and give one to you when necessary.

For many recovering addicts, this brings a modicum of reassurance to know that, even if you wanted to, you couldn’t take more than your prescribed amount.

Enlist someone close to you who understands the power of addiction and who also has a reasonably thick skin. Sympathetic and steady are two critical characteristics of the person you trust with your medication.

Create Your Aftercare Plan

Your doctor undoubtedly has well-thought-out plans for you, and you should make your own arrangements so that you have a solid plan with which to go forward. Reach out to your recovery program for advice on approaching this dilemma.

Write down how you would like to see yourself post-op, how long you think would be permissible to use painkillers if your pain was acute, and what should be done if it seems like you’re sliding back into an addictive pattern.

Knowing that you’ve put these fears and expectations down on paper may boost your courage.

Explore Alternatives to Opiates for Pain Relief

Surgery and Relapse and pillsYou are not the only recovered addict that has faced this challenge. Because the grip of opiates is so strong, quite a few people have recovered only to face a necessary medical procedure and the likelihood of a possible relapse.

For this reason, some recovering addicts refuse opiates. While this is not advisable, it may be a necessary solution. Some alternative treatments don’t hold the same danger and temptation as opiates do. Here are some alternate methods to deal with pain:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy can change the way you experience pain and how you cope with it
  • Natural alternatives like CBD may help manage your body’s response to pain
  • Meditation, Tai Chi, and hypnosis are all exploratory practices in the realm of pain management
  • Virtual reality programs help pull the viewer into the VR world and away from the cognizance of pain

You can also ask your doctor about mild pain relievers, like Tylenol with Codeine, that has lower addictive properties. You can also choose just to take over-the-counter pain relievers, but avoid taking too much and too often, as this can result in liver damage.

Your Past Addiction Does Not Determine Future Behavior

You’ve done a lot of hard work to get to where you are, and you’re not going to sit idly by and watch it all fall to dust. You are not the same person as you were in the grip of addiction.

Although opiates are incredibly powerful, they’re also an incredibly useful tool that can help diminish your pain so you can heal more quickly, possibly avoiding chronic pain in the future. Chronic pain is one of the contributors to opioid addiction. By using your prescribed pain relievers after surgery responsibly, you can remain in control of your recovery.

The Final Word

Even if you are scheduled for a medical procedure that may necessitate pain management through prescribed opiates, this is not a guarantee that you will relapse into old, unhealthy habits.

By being honest to yourself and those around you, talking to your doctor, exploring alternate therapies, and creating an aftercare plan, you can build up your defenses so that, even though the anxiety about relapse is still present, the threat dramatically diminishes.

Right Path Addiction Treatment Centers can help you navigate the complexities of using opioid pain relievers after a major surgery so you can stay committed to your recovery journey.


Written by Sergey Zhitar, MD Medical Director

Native of Moldova, Dr. Zhitar is Board Certified in Addiction Medicine as well as Internal Medicine and completed his training at UPMC Shadyside, Pittsburgh, PA in 2000.

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