Ice Pack For Freezing Surgical Pain

Stomach surgery patients using cold compresses also needed fewer powerful pain meds in new study

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Lessening the pain that frequently follows major abdominal surgery is critical as patients begin their recovery. Strong, pain-relieving opioid medications typically are prescribed at the start of that healing process.

But many doctors and patients alike would prefer to use as few of those potentially addictive opioid medications as possible.

Opioids, which include morphine, can have other serious side effects, such as nausea, drowsiness and constipation.

According to a new study, a simple ice pack can reduce post-surgery pain and the need for morphine and other pain-killing narcotics.

"Ask your surgeon about options for pain relief after surgery."

Viraj Master, MD, PhD, FACS, of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, was the study's lead author.

Dr. Master and his colleagues analyzed the degree of pain reported by 27 patients who had soft ice packs applied to their abdominal incisions during the first 24 hours after surgery and who were allowed to choose whether or not they also wanted to take painkillers. The researchers compared those results to the pain levels of 28 patients who took painkillers but were not given ice packs after their operations.

Twice a day, both groups of patients rated their pain on a scale ranging from 0 to 100. Zero ratings suggested no pain, while a rating of 100 suggested the most excruciating pain of all.

According to the researchers, the ice-pack patients, on average, endured half as much pain as patients who only took painkillers.

In addition, painkiller use was 22.5 percent lower among those who used ice packs. Patients with ice packs were allowed to use the compresses as often as they chose during the first 24 hours after surgery. The measurements were taken on the first and third days following their operations.

Based on their findings, the researchers recommended that more surgeons should have patients use ice packs off and on after surgery. The packs should be removed when they've made a patient's stomach incisions colder than the patient can bear, the researchers wrote.

"An ice pack is safe and inexpensive, gives the patient a sense of empowerment — because it is self-care — and doesn't require high-tech devices," Dr. Masters said.

Patient concerns that their post-operative pain was not being adequately treated has long been a topic of discussion among some healthcare providers and patient groups. Previous studies have concluded that such pain often isn't adequately addressed by health professionals, the researchers wrote.

Even so, there also is concern about the side effects that can accompany pain-killing opioids. These side effects include excessive sleepiness, constipation, nausea and vomiting. Also, addiction to painkillers has soared in recent years as they have become more widely prescribed.

"A growing body of scientific evidence shows that [pain-killing] narcotics may not be the best way to control pain," Dr. Masters said. "We now know that it is more effective to use combination treatments that reduce the amount of narcotics needed."

Nario Rene Cantu, RPh, of Cantu's Pharmacy in Edinburg, Texas, said this study's findings are promising.

"With the dangers attributed to the use of opioid pain relievers, other effective alternatives need to be examined to protect our patients," Cantu said. "Narcotic analgesics, with their possible damaging and lingering consequences, make [ice packs] a sensible, effective and economical option when treating severe pain."

This study was published online October 8 in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons.

Study authors did not disclose who funded the study. Nor did they report any financial investments or other involvement that would affect study design, analysis and outcomes.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 6, 2013
Last Updated:
December 30, 2013