The use of prescription painkillers in the US increased four-fold between 1997 and 2010, and postoperative overdoses doubled over a similar time period. In the August 2, 2017 edition of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Schoenfeld et al. estimated the proportion of nearly 10,000 initially opioid-naïve TRICARE patients who used opioids up to 1 year after discharge for one of four common spinal surgical procedures (discectomy, decompression, lumbar posterolateral arthrodesis, or lumbar interbody arthrodesis).
Eighty-four percent of the patients filled at least 1 opioid prescription upon hospital discharge. At 30 days following discharge, 8% continued opioid use; at 3 months, 1% continued use; and at 6 months, 0.1%. Only 2 patients (0.02%) in this cohort continued prescription opioid use at 1 year following surgery.
In an adjusted analysis, the authors found that an age of 25 to 34 years, lower socioeconomic status, and a diagnosis of depression were significantly associated with an increased likelihood of continuing opioid use. Those patient-related factors notwithstanding, the authors claim that the outcomes in their study “directly contravene the narrative that patients who undergo spine surgery, once started on prescription opioids following surgery, are at high risk of sustained opioid use.”
However, in his commentary on this study, Robert J. Barth, PhD, cautions that the exclusion criteria restricted even this large sample to about 19% of representative spine surgery candidates, making the findings not widely generalizable. Having said that, the commentator adds that the study supports findings of prior research that persistent postoperative opioid use is more related to “addressable patient-level predictors” than postsurgical pain. He also notes that the findings are “supportive of guidelines that call for surgical-discharge prescriptions of opioids to be limited to ≤2 weeks.”
The orthopaedic community worldwide—and especially those of us in the US, the nation most notorious for over-prescribing—has become very cognizant of the epidemic of opioid abuse. Ironically, the current problem was fueled partly by the “fifth vital sign” movement of 10 to 20 years ago, when physicians were encouraged (brow-beaten, in my opinion) to increase the use of opioid medications to “prevent” high pain scores.
Researchers internationally are now pursuing clarification on the appropriate use of these medications. The societal consequences of opioid addiction, which all too often starts with a musculoskeletal injury and/or orthopaedic procedure, have been well documented in the social-science and lay literature. In the May 17, 2017 issue of The Journal, Smith et al. detail an additional consequence to the chronic use of opioid drugs—the negative impact of preoperative opioids on pain outcomes following knee replacement surgery.
Approximately one-quarter of the 156 total knee arthroplasty (TKA) patients analyzed had had at least one preoperative opioid prescription. Patients who used opioids prior to TKA obtained less pain relief from the operation than those who had not used pre-TKA opioids. The authors also found that pain catastrophizing was the only factor measured that was independently associated with pre-TKA opioid use.
To be sure, we need to disseminate this information to the primary care community so they will be more judicious about prescribing these medications for knee arthritis. Additionally, knee surgeons should consider working with primary care providers to wean their TKA-eligible patients off these medications, with the understanding that chronic use preoperatively compromises postsurgical pain relief and functional outcomes.
We have previously published in The Journal the fact that the use of opioids is largely a cultural expectation that varies by country; physicians outside the US often achieve excellent postoperative pain management success without the use of these medications. My bottom line: We must continue to press forward to limit the use of opioid medications in both pre- and postoperative settings.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD
Anecdotally, many patients experience extreme discomfort after shoulder surgery. The April 5, 2017 issue of JBJS features results from a randomized controlled trial comparing morphine consumption and pain during the 24 hours following shoulder arthroplasty among two groups. One group (n=78) received a preoperative interscalene brachial plexus blockade, while the other (n=78) received intraoperative infiltration of bupivacaine liposome suspension.
Mean total postoperative narcotic consumption during the 24 hours after surgery was not significantly different between the two groups, although intraoperative narcotic consumption was significantly lower in the blockade group. The mean VAS pain scores were significantly lower in the blockade group at 0 and 8 hours postoperatively, the same as in the infiltration group at 16 hours postoperatively, and significantly higher than those in the infiltration group at 24 hours postoperatively. That last finding in patients undergoing blockade represents the phenomenon known as “rebound pain.”
The authors, Namdari et al., conclude that the “optimal postoperative pain regimen for shoulder arthroplasty…require[s] further investigation.” But their analysis uncovered four demographic factors that were associated with higher pain scores at 24 hours after surgery, regardless of the analgesic technique used:
- Younger age
- History of depression
- Higher Charlson Comorbidity Score
- Higher preoperative VAS score
In his commentary on the study, Ranjan Gupta, MD notes that one downside of the block approach is “an inability to assess the patient’s neurologic function after the surgical procedure.” His own early clinical experience leads him to favor the admittedly “laborious” infiltration approach, partly because “both patients and orthopaedic nurses who take care of these patients in the immediate postoperative time period can readily appreciate the lack of rebound pain.”
Given the prevalence of opioid prescriptions, many patients present for total knee arthroplasty (TKA) having been on long-term opioid therapy. In the January 4, 2017 edition of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Ben-Ari et al. determined that patients taking opiate medications for more than three months prior to their TKA were significantly more likely than non-users of opioids to undergo revision surgery within a year after the index procedure.
Among the more than 32,000 TKA patients from Veterans Affairs (VA) databases included in the study, nearly 40% were long-term opioid users prior to surgery. Despite that high percentage, the authors found that chronic kidney disease was the leading risk factor for knee revision among the relevant variables they examined. And even though the authors used a sophisticated natural language/machine-learning tool to analyze postoperative notes, they found no association between long-term opioid use and the etiology of the revisions.
In a commentary accompanying the study, Michael Reich, MD and Richard Walker, MD, note that the study’s very specific VA demographic (94% male) may hamper the generalizability of the findings, especially because most TKAs are currently performed in women. Nevertheless, the commentators conclude that:
- “The study illuminates the value in limiting opioid use during the nonoperative treatment of patients with knee arthritis.”
- “Patients who are taking opioids when they present for TKA could reasonably be encouraged to decrease opioid use during preoperative preparation.”
- “Preoperative use of opioids should be considered among modifiable risk factors and comorbidities when deciding whether to perform TKA.”
Early on, patients with knee osteoarthritis (OA) often get sufficient pain relief with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. But as the condition progresses, many opt for knee replacement. Although knee replacement shows remarkable long-term results, immediate postsurgical pain management is a crucial consideration for orthopaedists and patients.
On Tuesday, December 13, 2016 at 12:30 PM EST, The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery (JBJS) and PAIN, the official journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, will host a complimentary webinar focused on relieving pain before and after surgery for knee arthritis.
- Sachiyuki Tsukada, MD, coauthor of a study in JBJS, will compare pain relief and side effects from intraoperative periarticular injections versus postoperative epidural analgesia after unilateral knee replacement.
- PAIN author Lars Arendt-Nielsen, Dr.Med.Sci, will delve into findings from a study examining biomarker and clinical outcomes associated with the COX-2 inhibitor etoricoxib in patients with knee OA.
Moderated by JBJS Associate Editor Nitin Jain, MD, the webinar will include an additional perspective from musculoskeletal pain-management expert Michael Taunton, MD. The last 15 minutes will be devoted to a live Q&A session, during which the audience can ask questions of all three panelists.
Seats are limited, so register now!
Surgeons often prescribe more postoperative pain medication than their patients actually use. That’s partly because there is limited procedure-specific evidence-based data regarding optimal amounts and duration of postoperative narcotic use—and because every patient’s “relationship” with postoperative pain is unique. Nevertheless, physician prescribing plays a role in the current opioid-abuse epidemic, so any credible scientific information about postoperative narcotic usage will be helpful.
The Level I prognostic study by Grant et al. in the September 21, 2016 issue of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery identified factors associated with high opioid use among a prospective cohort of 72 patients (mean age 14.9 years) undergoing posterior spinal fusion for idiopathic scoliosis.
Higher weight and BMI, male sex, older age, and higher preoperative pain scores were associated with increased narcotic use after surgery. Somewhat surprisingly, the number of levels fused, number of osteotomies, in-hospital pain level, self-reported pain tolerance, and surgeon assessment of anticipated postoperative narcotic requirements were unreliable predictors of which patients would have higher postoperative narcotic use.
Because the authors found that pain scores returned to preoperative levels by postoperative week 4, they say, “further refills after this point should be considered with caution.” Additionally, after reviewing the cohort’s behavior around disposing of unused narcotic medication, the authors conclude, “We consider discussion of narcotic use and disposal to be an important component of the 1-month postoperative visit…This important educational opportunity could help decrease abuse of narcotics.”
In the September 7, 2016 issue of The Journal, Sutton III et al. report results from a sophisticated analysis of the National Surgical Quality Improvement Program (NSQIP) database confirming that hospital discharge 0 to 2 days after total joint arthroplasty (TJA) is safe in select patients in terms of 30-day major-complication and readmission rates. Large dataset analyses like this represent the next step in confirming what has been going on at the grass-roots level across the world—a movement toward outpatient TJAs and/or very early discharges following those procedures. (See related “Global Forum” article in the July 6, 2016 JBJS.)
This trend has been associated with very high patient satisfaction and low morbidity. The movement away from multiple-day hospital admission and toward rapid discharge to home or alternative postoperative care environments such as hotels or rehabilitation centers has far surpassed the novelty stage and is under way in every major metropolitan area around the world. The trend is a welcome motivation for us to address patient expectations for the postoperative period, which are specifically linked to more judicious use of narcotic medication accompanied by regional and local anesthetic efforts and liberal use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication. Total joint replacement is the ideal surgical intervention to lead this no- or short-hospitalization movement because of the standardized surgical approaches and requirements for implants, blood-loss management, and thromboprophylaxis.
I envision a time in the not-too-distant future where 80% to 90% of musculoskeletal post-intervention care takes place outside of the hospital environment, a shift that will require efficient use of remote-monitoring technology and continued improvement in post-intervention pain management. Hospitals will then become the setting for very complex events like organ transplantation, appropriate intensive care, and high-level trauma care. This will result in lowering the overall cost of care, improving patient satisfaction (who among us would not rather sleep in our own bed?), and minimizing nosocomial complications.
Marc Swiontkowski, MD