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Learning About the Patient-Controlled Analgesia (PCA) Pump

What is a PCA pump?

A patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) pump is a safe way for people in pain to give themselves intravenous (IV) pain medicine (analgesia) when they need it.

The PCA pump holds a container that's filled with your pain medicine.

Using a PCA pump gives you the ability to control your pain. It can also help you feel less anxious and less worried about your pain. You may also be able to use less medicine. That means you'll be able to move around more and feel more alert. And it may also help you avoid other side effects of pain medicine.

How does it work?

Pain medicine works better when the pain first starts, before it gets too bad. Your doctor or nurse will set up a PCA pump to either give you medicine continuously or only when you press the button. In rare cases, it may be set up to do both. If you need more pain medicine than the PCA pump allows you to get, be sure to talk with your doctor.

Here's how the pump works:

  • Your doctor or nurse sets the pump to release the right dose of medicine.
  • The pain medicine flows from the pump into the tubing that goes into your vein.
  • When you feel your pain starting, you press a button that you can hold in your hand.
  • After you press the button, pain medicine is released from the pump. Your doctor or nurse will have set the pump to make sure that you don't give yourself too much medicine.

Common pain medicines used in PCA pumps include hydromorphone and morphine.

When is a PCA pump used?

PCA pumps are most often used in the hospital after surgery, to help with moderate to severe pain. The pump allows you to give yourself pain medicine as you recover from your surgery, until you are able to start taking oral pain medicine.

Can you give yourself too much pain medicine?

It would be hard to give yourself too much pain medicine. Your doctor or nurse will set controls on the pump that limit the amount of pain medicine you get. Even if you press the button, the pump won't give you more medicine if it isn't time for your next dose.

Sometimes family members or friends may offer to press the button on the PCA pump for you. But you are the only person who should press the button. Only you know when you need more pain medicine in your body. If you're too sleepy to press the button, you don't need more medicine.

People sometimes worry about developing opioid use disorder while taking opioid pain medicines. Moderate to severe opioid use disorder is sometimes called addiction. If you are worried about this, talk to your doctor.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

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