Navigate Up

Intravenous Patient-Controlled Analgesia (PCA)

Controlling pain during your recovery is important. PCA allows you to control the amount of pain medication you receive. PCA is short for “patient-controlled analgesia.” Analgesia (AN-uhl-GEE-zha) means pain relief.

Pain control

Pain control helps the natural healing process. Without the fear of pain, you should feel less anxious. You should be able to relax more easily. This, in turn, will help you become more physically active, aiding the healing process. Pain medications are not addictive when the medication is prescribed for a short time and stopped gradually.

How PCA works

With PCA, you are the key to managing your pain because only you know how you really feel. Your doctor and nurse will work closely with you. They will depend on you to describe your pain in four ways:

  • What hurts?
  • Where does it hurt?
  • When does it hurt?
  • How much does it hurt?

You will be asked to rate your pain on a scale from 0 (no pain) to 10 (worst pain you can imagine). Your responses will guide your doctor and nurse in setting the dosage of pain medication to meet your needs.

You will receive the pain medication prescribed by your doctor through a computerized pump. This pump, called a PCA pump, allows you to adjust your medication to provide a level of comfort that is right for you. The PCA pump is connected to a syringe of pain medication that is attached to your intravenous (IV) line. The pump is mounted on a pole near your bed.

To activate the PCA pump, you will press and release a control button to deliver a dose of medication to relieve your pain. The pump will “chirp” to indicate that you have received the dose of medication. Your doctor orders the dose.

How to get relief

PCA may not free you of all pain, but small, frequent doses usually provide steady relief. Use the PCA pump to keep your pain at a level you can tolerate. Do not wait until your pain gets worse to give yourself the pain medication. If you wait too long to give yourself the medication, it may be difficult to get comfortable again.

You should not let fear or concerns about this pain control method keep you from using your pain medication. Talk openly and honestly with your doctor and nurse about any questions or concerns you may have. This is the best way to get the pain control that is right for you.

Protection from overdose

Only the patient can push the PCA button. IF others push the PCA button for the patient, more pain medication than is needed could be given to the patient. This can result in serious complications, including death.

The nurse will set the pump’s controls to deliver pain medication in the way prescribed by your doctor. After each dose, the pump is set to wait several minutes before another dose can be given, or medications can be delivered as a continuous infusion, or a combination of both of these.

Side effects

Your pain medication may cause some side effects. Tell your nurse or doctor if you have any of the following:

  • Nausea
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Confusion
  • Excessive sleepiness
  • Itchiness

You can receive treatment for side effects.

Questions and concerns

If you have any questions or concerns about PCA, talk to your nurse or doctor. Your nurse can contact your doctor 24 hours a day.

​Revised July 2013​

UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences | Supplemental content provided by Healthwise, Incorporated. To learn more, visit

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

Pittsburgh, PA, USA |