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Is Elbow Surgery Painful? What You Need to Know

There’s no getting around it: elbow surgery is painful. It is an invasive procedure that requires a certain amount of tissue damage to facilitate healing. Depending upon the type of elbow surgery — for example, fracture repair, tendonitis treatment, or ligament reconstruction — muscles, tendons, ligaments, or even bones must be cut, detached, stretched, or drilled into. Nerves may be manipulated or gently pushed aside.

Although the tissue damage done during elbow surgery is painful, as is the recovery from it, pain management for elbow surgery is effective, and the pain eases in a relatively short time. Let’s explore the pain associated with different types of elbow surgery, pain management techniques, and what you can expect.

Understanding Pain After Surgery

Pain following any kind of surgery is normal. Surgery requires cutting through tissues like muscle, tendon, ligament, and bone to remove or repair damage, which triggers the body’s automatic responses to injury, including inflammation and pain.

After surgery, the body must heal the damage and complete the repair initiated by the surgeon. Heat and swelling occur as blood flow to the injured area increases along with the delivery of immune cells and nutrients. Pain forces the patient to rest, giving the body a chance to heal. So, while elbow surgery is painful, the pain serves a vital purpose.

It may seem counter-intuitive to deliberately cause more tissue damage and pain in order to remedy tissue damage and pain, but there are critical differences. Surgery causes acute pain that can be intense but short-lived, gradually easing, then resolving in weeks to months. The chronic pain of the condition the surgery remedies can last for years and serves no biological purpose. The sharp, stinging, or burning pain at the incision site is generally localized to the damaged tissues. However, the neuropathic pain the surgery addresses is likely a shooting, tingling sensation that may travel.

While elbow surgery is painful, the intensity of pain varies by the type of surgery involved and the individual’s pain tolerance. We think of pain as a purely physical sensation, but that’s not how we experience it. Pain is made up of a physical signal warning of potential tissue damage — and a negative emotional interpretation of that signal. Due to the emotional component of pain, we all experience pain differently, and that experience is influenced by several factors, including:

  • Physical health
  • Amount of rest
  • Current stress
  • Levels Level of distraction
  • Cultural and psychological factors

Managing Pain After Elbow Surgery

While elbow surgery is painful, it can be planned for and managed. Often, the surgeon will perform a nerve block to manage postoperative pain, temporarily interrupting pain signals and preventing them from reaching the brain. As a result, some elbow surgeries are performed while the patient is awake.

The nerve block immediately numbs the elbow, blocking the experience of pain for anywhere from a few hours to several days, depending upon the anesthesia used. Consequently, the patient has less need for painkillers while beginning their recovery in less pain.

It’s critical to follow the prescribed pain management techniques to stay ahead of the pain. You will be prescribed pain relief medication and over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, as well as the use of ice packs, rest, elevation of the elbow, and physical therapy.

Exploring Different Elbow Surgery Pain Levels

Although any type of elbow surgery is painful, the severity of tissue damage varies by the complexity of the repair:

Tennis Elbow

While tennis elbow surgery is painful, it is less invasive and damaging than more complicated surgeries. Pain is the worst for the first three to four days but is typically managed well with oral painkillers. 

Elbow Fracture

Surgery to repair an elbow fracture typically causes more pain that lasts longer than tennis elbow surgery.

Total Elbow Replacement Surgery

This is a major operation that affects all three bones, many muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves, so it can be quite painful. The tissue damage resulting from the surgery is significant and may take three months or more to heal fully.

Recovery and Long-Term Pain Management

To maximize your recovery following elbow surgery, following through with your prescribed physical therapy is essential to restore full function. The pain of physical therapy is temporary but critical to ensure you will regain mobility and minimize scar tissue. The exercises increase blood flow, delivering crucial nutrients and oxygen to support the healing process. By strengthening the weakened joints and muscles, you also help to prevent future injuries. In time, physical therapy speeds recovery, and the pain subsides.

Non-Surgical Elbow Treatment at QC Kinetix

QC Kinetix provides non-surgical regenerative elbow treatments that don’t do additional damage to your body. Our natural therapies stimulate your body’s natural self-healing mechanisms and direct them to the source of your pain. If you are in pain and surgery is in your future, schedule a free evaluation at your local QC Kinetix. If you are a good candidate, we can help you regain function and mobility in your elbow without the pain, risk of complications, and lengthy recovery time that surgery entails.

Elbow Surgery Frequently Asked Questions

Can I walk after elbow surgery?

You can and must walk after elbow surgery. Gradually increase your walking after elbow surgery to improve circulation and help prevent pneumonia and constipation.

How long are you in a cast after elbow surgery?

Typically, your arm will be in a removable splint for the first week to 10 days after elbow surgery. Once the sutures are removed, your arm will be immobilized with a cast for several weeks. The exact length depends on the complexity of the surgical procedure you’re recovering from.

What is the success rate of elbow surgery?

Elbow surgery has a high success rate of 85-95%, depending upon the type of surgery and the patient’s general health.

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