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.”