Prescribing Opioids: Smallest Dose for Shortest Time
Some people are tired of reading and hearing about the opioid crisis in America. When this topic comes up at meetings, there are rumblings in the crowd. When it’s brought up during hospital safety briefings, there are not-so-subtle eye-rolls, and occasionally I hear frank assertions of “enough already” when new information on the topic appears in the literature. Yet, as two studies in the July 18, 2018 edition of JBJS highlight, this topic is not going away any time soon. And for good reason. We are only starting to scratch the surface of the serious unintended consequences—beyond the risk of addiction—from overly aggressive prescribing and consumption of narcotics.
The first article, by Zhu et al., directly addresses the topic of overprescribing by doctors in China. The authors evaluated how many opioid pills were given to patients who sustained fractures that were treated nonoperatively. The mean number of opioid pills patients reported consuming (7.2) was less than half the mean number prescribed (14.7). More than 70% of patients did not consume all the opioid pills they were prescribed, and 10% of patients consumed no opioids at all. Zhu et al. conclude that “if opioids are used [in this setting], surgeons should prescribe the smallest dose for the shortest time after considering the injury location and type of fracture or dislocation.”
The second article, by Weick et al., underscores the patient-outcome and societal impact of opioid use prior to total hip and knee arthroplasty. Patients from North America who consumed opioids for 60+ days prior to their joint replacement had a significantly increased risk of revision at both the 1-year and 3-year postoperative follow-ups, compared to similar patients who were opioid-naïve before surgery. Similarly, patients who used opioids for 60+ days prior to undergoing a total hip or knee arthroplasty had a significantly increased risk of 30-day readmission, compared to patients who were opioid-naïve. All these differences held when the authors made adjustments for patient age, sex, and comorbidities—meaning that tens of thousands of patients each year can expect to have worse outcomes (and add a large cost burden to the health care system) simply by being on opioid medications for two months preoperatively.
These articles address two very different research questions in two very different regions of the world, but they help expose the chasm in our knowledge surrounding opioid use and misuse. We have been prescribing patients more narcotics than they need while just starting to recognize the importance of minimizing opioid use preoperatively in an effort to maximize surgical outcomes. These two competing impulses emphasize why further opioid-related studies are important. While continuing to look at the negative effects these medications can have on patients, we have to take a hard look at our contribution to the problem.
Chad A. Krueger, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media