When planning for any type of surgical procedure, the orthopaedist considers many patient and injury-specific variables. With a distal radius fracture, for example, the main goal of the surgery—anatomic reconstruction of the distal radius—remains constant. However, there are numerous other variables (fracture morphology and patient age, just to name 2) that have to be considered to achieve that goal. Yet, when it comes to postoperative pain control, I imagine that most orthopaedic surgeons prescribe the same amount of opioids to almost every patient undergoing an open reduction/internal fixation of a distal radius fracture, regardless of unique patient characteristics. Our medical mantra that “no two patients are the same” seems to fall by the wayside when it comes to postoperative pain control.
This disconnect is what I thought about while reading the article by Stepan et al. in the January 2, 2019 issue of The Journal. The authors’ institution developed and disseminated to all prescribers a 1-hour opioid education program and consensus-based postoperative opioid prescription guidelines. They then compared the number of opioid pills and total oral morphine equivalents prescribed after 9 ambulatory procedures within 3 subspecialty services (sports medicine, hand, and foot and ankle) prior to and after implementation of the guidelines. Stepan et al. found a significant decrease in the amount of narcotics prescribed after 6 of the 9 surgery types after implementation of the guidelines. Over the course of a year, those decreases would have equaled about 30,000 fewer opioid pills!
Interestingly, there was no significant post-guideline decrease in opioid prescribing after any of the 3 foot-and-ankle procedures. The authors attribute that finding to the slow adoption of the guidelines due to adherence to previously developed pain-management recommendations in this subspecialty.
It has become apparent that we tend to overprescribe opioids postoperatively (see related OrthoBuzz post). This study supports previous data showing that prescription guidelines can be useful in decreasing the amount of postoperative narcotics prescribed to patients, while maintaining adequate pain management and good levels of patient satisfaction. While further work in developing educational tools and procedure-specific “standards” to help surgeons guide their postoperative prescribing practices would be useful, a surgeon’s mindfulness is equally important. We need first to recognize that orthopaedic surgeons tend to overprescribe postoperative opioids—and second, we must be willing to change our habits. Without both awareness and willingness, the best guidelines and recommendations will be ignored, and an opportunity for us to help curb the opioid crisis in our country will be wasted.
Chad A. Krueger, MD
JBJS Deputy Editor for Social Media
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
The current prescription-opioid/heroin epidemic in the US has been much publicized of late. According to a recent AAOS information statement, the nearly 100-percent increase in the number of narcotic pain-medication prescriptions between 2008 and 2011 corresponds to an increase in opioid diversion to nonmedical users as well as a resurgence in heroin use.
Among the strategies the AAOS statement calls for to stem the tide of opioid abuse and manage patient pain more safely and effectively are the following:
- Opioid-prescription policies at the practice level that
- set ranges for acceptable amounts and durations of opioids for various musculoskeletal conditions,
- limit opioid prescription sizes to only the amount of medication expected to be used,
- strictly limit prescriptions for extended-release opioids, and
- restrict opioid prescriptions for nonsurgical patients with chronic degenerative conditions.
- Tools (such as the opioid risk tool at MDCalc) that identify patients at risk for greater opioid use.
- Empathic communication with patients, who “use fewer opiates when they know their doctor cares about them as individuals,” according to the statement.
- An interstate tracking system that would allow surgeons and pharmacists to see all prescriptions filled in all states by a single patient.
- CME standards that require periodic physician CME on opioid safety and optimal pain management strategies.
Noting that stress, depression, and ineffective coping strategies tend to intensify a person’s experience of pain, the statement concludes that “peace of mind is the strongest pain reliever.”