Sending pain on its way

When Telena Mann had surgery on her shoulder, she came home with more than a bandage and a fistful of pain pills.

The 59-year-old Merced woman returned with a small tube inserted into her surgical site and a hand-held pump that would help keep her comfortable for the first few days after surgery.

The pain pump, a common sight in hospitals for surgery patients, has moved into the outpatient surgery world. But there is a difference. In the hospital, most pain pumps are filled with narcotic pain relievers, while the pumps that go home with a patient have an anesthetic in them.

"It makes the patient less painful," said Dr. Mark Hellner, a Merced orthopedic surgeon who uses the pump on some of his patients.

Because the pump can give pain relief without a lot of pain pills, the patient is able to go home instead of a hospital stay, Hellner said. "The surgery can be done on a come and go basis," he said.

The pump is set up to deliver anesthetic through multiple holes, according to Dr. Ramakrishna Thondapu, a Merced anesthesiologist. The pump delivers the medication automatically, or at the push of the button by the patient.

"It's very comfortable for the patient, and it gives good pain relief," Thondapu said.

There is one drawback to the pain pump being used on an outpatient basis: health insurance companies.

"Some insurance covers it, and some don't," said Hellner. He believes that the pain pump saves money because the patient doesn't have to stay in the hospital. In fact, if Hellner's patients' insurance won't cover the pump, sometimes they will pay for it out of pocket because it gives such good pain relief. Hellner said the cost of the pump is about $200.

The pump is put in at the end of the surgery, and is taken out by the surgeon in the office about five or six days later, Hellner said.

"Some of my patients who had surgery on one side without the pump say that with the pump was so much better," Hellner said. "It has to be used in conjunction with pain pills, but most patients need a lot less of the pills."

For Mann, the pump along with pills gave her great reduction in pain. She had 12 injections in the pump, but used only eight of them.

"If I ever have surgery again, which I hope I don't, it would be great to have the pain pump again," Mann said.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or