Addiction Recovery and Major Surgery: Can I Take Painkillers?

At some point in life, you may need major surgery. Major surgery is any invasive operative procedure and often, a doctor will prescribe painkillers to help ease pain during the healing process. 

However, in recovery, you may ask yourself if it is OK to take painkillers. Is it safe? Will it lead you towards a relapse? When debating whether to take painkillers, it is essential to remember that everybody is different. The way you deal with pain and your comfort level will differ from others in recovery. Looking at the different options you have for taking painkillers in recovery can help you decide what is best for you and your sobriety. 


Answer #1: Absolutely Will Not Take Painkillers

Many individuals in recovery, regardless of years sober, absolutely refuse to test fate and use painkillers. For many people, taking pills can be a trigger. As a result, they stay away from anything that can become addictive or can trigger cravings.  

If you choose not to take painkillers, it may be an attempt to avoid every possible trigger or craving that might jeopardize your recovery. On the other hand, you may have been addicted to prescription drugs specifically and choosing not to take medication after major surgery may be the best option. 


Answer #2: Will Take Painkillers Only If You are Unconscious

Some people might feel it is alright for doctors to administer painkillers if they are unconscious because they will not know. They believe they are less likely to become addicted if they are unaware of the medication in their system. 

Perhaps this is a bit of “mind over matter” thinking. However, if it works for you, go with it. Anything that helps your body heal without affecting your recovery may be beneficial. Unfortunately, you will not know the actual effect this has on your recovery until you are conscious again.


Answer #3: Willing to Take Low Doses or Less Than Prescribed 

It might be alright to take just enough to take the edge of the pain away, so it is tolerable but not so much that it goes away. For example, rather than a 50 mg pill, perhaps you take 10 mg to alleviate the pain enough so you can go about your day. 

It is not enough for you to feel pain-free or even buzzed. Instead, you still feel the pain but not to the point it interferes with daily living activities. If this is possible, it could be an option for individuals in recovery who cannot tolerate pain. For some, even the lowest level of pain is intolerable, and you do not want them searching for relief on their own.


Answer #4: Will Take Only Specific Pain Medications

You may be open to taking painkillers as long as they are not opioids which are highly addictive. If you wish to take non-narcotic pain medications, you can inform the medical or dental staff you are in recovery, and they can give you alternative pain medication such as:

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
  • Naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn)
  • Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)
  • Ketorolac (Toradol)
  • Acetaminophen
  • Beta-blockers
    • Labetalol
    • Esmolol 
    • Glucocorticoid steroids

These may not alleviate all the pain, but they can increase your comfort level. That is what is important. Most people can tolerate a certain level of pain. It may be the best option for many individuals who have been in recovery for a few years, especially if pills are not their drug of choice. 


Answer #5: OK with Using Painkillers 

Finally, others believe their sobriety and faith are so strong they can take painkillers in a medical setting and be alright. For them to take narcotic analgesics, the following conditions may be considered:

  • You don’t have cravings
  • You have been sober for at least one year
  • Relapse does not feel like an issue for you
  • You don’t have muscle memory (of taking pills)
  • You refuse take-home prescription(s)


While medical procedures and surgery are serious, so is prescription drug addiction. Deciding in advance if you are willing to take painkillers is essential, particularly if you require major surgery and may not be able to speak for yourself. Ultimately, it is your decision to manage your pain.

Depending on your stance regarding painkillers, you might want to consider putting something in writing and carrying it with you. As a person in recovery, your wishes must be adhered to related to painkillers under any circumstance. If you have your wishes in writing, generally, medical staff must adhere to them. Also, always feel free to reach out to your sponsor, counselor or other support system if you are having trouble deciding what to do.


It makes complete sense that anyone in recovery from substance use addiction will hesitate to take painkillers, even in a strictly supervised medical setting. However, there may be times painkillers may be offered to individuals in recovery, particularly following major medical or dental surgeries. These surgeries cause severe shock to the body, reducing the body’s ability to mitigate pain. Here at beautiful Cliffside Malibu in Malibu, California, we help people in recovery make plans for their future to address situations like this that may impact their recovery. We offer a variety of resources to help you maintain your recovery path. Please call us at (855) 403-5641 when you need help.