Staying Clean and Sober Through Surgery

Whether you’re recently clean or sober, have been in recovery for some time, or are simply worried about the dangers of addiction while recovering from surgery, your fears are grounded. Surgery typically means days to weeks and sometimes months of recovery, during which time you will be exposed to limited activity, negative emotions caused by pain and an inability to be self sufficient, and pain pills. Each of these factors on its own can lead to addiction or to a relapse, but together, they can be very difficult to move past.
However, it’s not hopeless. If you’re a recovering addict or alcoholic, there are steps you can take to remain clean and sober through surgery and after, even if you need opiates.

Discuss Your Options with Your Doctor

In some cases, you may be able to request alternative painkillers to opiates, especially if you have had a history of opiate addiction. Because over 2.1 million people in the United States suffer from opiate addiction, doctors are aware of issues and are open to discussing them and the risks and finding alternatives when needed.
In most cases, your doctor will be able to recommend either an opiate alternative or a reduced opiate schedule followed by another type of painkiller. While this does depend on the severity of your surgery, it is important to ask and to discuss your options.
Your Doctor May Suggest:
Acetaminophen – Acetaminophen is the active ingredient in Tylenol and may be recommended as an alternative to opiates. You may be given prescription acetaminophen or over the counter brands.
NSAIDs – Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs are non-addictive and found in prescription and over the counter drugs including Aleve. While they can be helpful with pain, these drugs can cause problems, especially in older patients.
Corticosteroids – Corticosteroids may be used to provide pain relief over the short term. However, they cannot be used for long-term pain as they can cause immune system suppression. Recovering addicts should also discuss any existing gastrointestinal issues they may have with their doctor.
Anti-Depressants – Anti-depressants can be used to treat muscular and skeletal pain, making them ideal for treating pain after bone and joint surgeries.
Physical Therapy – In most cases, your doctor will recommend that you start physical therapy sooner to help you recover more quickly.
It can be difficult to bring up concerns with your doctor, or to admit to having a history of addiction, but your doctor will understand and will work with you to make the best choices for your future.

Tips for Staying Clean and Sober Through Surgery

While there are numerous ways to stay clean and sober through surgery, you can use the following tips to get started.
Plan – Talk to your doctor, decide on your options, and plan for your recovery. It’s important to remember to keep your plan realistic, because you will have to recover after surgery. Ask your doctor to help you plan of recovery that includes exercise, nutrition, and activities, so that you can get back on your feet as quickly as possible.
Be Careful – Pain medication is easy to take just because you’re supposed to, but in most cases, you can wait until you need it. If you’re in severe pain after your surgery, you will be given extended release or long acting opioids like Butrans or Dolophine. These pain pills should always be taken on a schedule and never in addition to the schedule. However, if you are on typical opioids, you can skip a dose if you feel that you don’t need it.
Eat Well – Proper nutrition will help you to boost your mood, heal more quickly, and will help you to avoid feeling unnecessarily tired, hungry, or ill. If your surgery is major enough that you will not be able to walk or prepare food after your surgery, plan to have someone cook for you, budget for takeout, and meal prep as much as you can for the first week or more after the surgery.
Malnutrition can cause:

  • Changes in the neurotransmitters in your brain, which will cause you to crave substances to correct it
  • Low blood sugar or hypoglycemia which can cause anxiety, fatigue, depression, panic attacks, and other emotions linked with alcohol and drug use.
  • Digestive problems, which can be worsened if you have a history of drug or alcohol use
  • Nutritional deficiencies like B, D, and C vitamins can cause depression, anxiety, and fatigue.

By planning to eat healthy, taking the steps to ensure that healthy food will be available, and eating it after your surgery, you can prevent
Exercise – While most of us think of recovering from surgery as laying in bed, it is important to exercise as much as possible within the bounds of your doctor’s recommendations. Discuss your options with your doctor to decide how quickly you can begin exercising again, and then slowly step back into exercising. If your insurance covers physical therapy, you should also attempt to go to it as early and as often as possible. Exercise boosts the dopamine and serotonin levels in the brain, which help you to feel happy, help you to feel more alert, and help you to sleep better. Multiple studies also show that controlled exercise, taken in moderation after surgery, will also help you to heal more quickly. While any exercise program should begin very slowly after surgery, exercise will help you to feel happier, more relaxed, and more self-sufficient, which will make you less likely to want an escape in the form of drugs or alcohol.
Get Enough Sleep – Sleep is an important part of your recovery but also an important part of keeping your mood and energy levels up. HALT or “Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired” is an acronym used to describe a state of mind in which many people turn to drugs or alcohol, or relapse during recovery. If you get enough sleep to feel well rested, you will be much better off and will more easily avoid addiction.
Plan Activities – It’s important to find things to do, people to spend time with, and positive interactions with others for every day of your recovery. Recovering from surgery is often difficult, not just because of the pain and pills, but also because you are bored, lonely, unhappy, and frustrated. These emotions will lead you to seek an outlet, which can very easily be drugs or alcohol. Schedule times for friends and family to come over, pick out books you want to read, plan to watch movies or Netflix, plan in short exercises every 30-60 minutes as soon as you can, and if you have pets, make sure you have controlled access to them during your recovery. You may also want to play games or use apps, so long as you are interested and engaged in what you are doing while you are awake.
Staying clean and sober through surgery may seem difficult, especially if you are recovering from an addiction, but you can make it through. The most important steps you can take are to plan your recovery with your doctor and to prepare for your recovery so that you can stay healthy, clean, and sober.
Good luck with your surgery.
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