Surgeons Reduce Rx Opioids Without Increasing Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Surgeons in Michigan have reduced the amount of opioid medication prescribed to patients recovering from common operations by nearly a third -- without causing patients to feel more postoperative pain.

In a new research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team from the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network (OPEN) reported on the results of a statewide effort to get surgical teams to follow prescribing guidelines for postoperative pain.

In just one year, surgeons at 43 Michigan hospitals reduced the number of opioid pills prescribed to patients after nine common operations, from an average of 26 pills per patient to an average of 18.

The surgeries included minor hernia repair, appendix and gallbladder removal, and hysterectomies. Most were minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries.

The ratings patients gave for their post-surgical pain and satisfaction didn't change from the ratings given by patients treated in the six months before opioids were reduced.


Researchers say patients only took about half the opioids prescribed to them, even as the prescription sizes shrank. They attribute this to improved counseling about pain expectations and non-opioid pain control options.

"The success of the statewide effort suggests an opportunity for other states to build on Michigan's experience, and room for even further reductions in prescription size," said Michael Englesbe, MD, a University of Michigan surgery professor. "At the same time, we need to make sure that patients also know how to safely dispose of any leftover opioids they don't take."

The study involved over 11,700 patients who had operations at hospitals participating in the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative. About half of the patients also filled out surveys sent to their homes after their operations, asking about their pain, satisfaction and opioid use after surgery.

The Michigan-OPEN team has been working since 2016 to reduce opioid prescribing and quantify the appropriate number of pills patients should take. Their research led to the the development of new guidelines that were first tested on gallbladder surgery patients before being expanded to other types of surgery.

Some hospitals have stopped giving opioids to surgical patients. Patients at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital get acetaminophen, gabapentin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage their pain before and after colorectal operations – and their surgeons say the treatment results in better patient outcomes

It’s a common misconception that many patients become addicted to opioids after surgery. A 2016 Canadian study, for example, found that long term opioid use after surgery is rare, with less than one percent of older adults still taking opioid pain medication a year after major elective surgery.

Another large study in the British Medical Journal found similar results. Only 0.2% of patients who were prescribed opioids for post-surgical pain were later diagnosed with opioid dependence, abuse or a non-fatal overdose.

Another fallacy is that leftover pain medication is often stolen, sold or given away. The DEA says less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

Tylenol for Postoperative Pain?

By Margaret Aranda, MD, Columnist

I saw them do it to our veterans. Now they were going to do it to me.

I heard the veterans scream decades ago, when I was president of a pre-med club at a VA hospital in Los Angeles. There was a little local anesthetic, no oxygen, no vital signs and no anesthesiologist. The hematologist-oncologist did the bone marrow extraction herself.

Now I was about to have the same procedure myself, to get an early diagnosis of mastocytosis, an orphan disease.  No one was going to tell me that I won’t hurt. The veterans fought in a war, yet they screamed.

After taking my vital signs, the intake nurse interrogated me, eyes peering over her bifocals.

“When was the last time you took OxyContin?” she asked.

(My thoughts: We never asked such a scrutinizing question. They could draw an opioid blood level, to “check” and see if I was telling the truth. Sure, my blood levels would be low, because it’s been a week. I’m not a drug addict. Big breath. Don’t let your thoughts get negative. Just get through this day.)


Postoperative pain was a big concern for me.

“What will I get for post-op pain?” I asked the anesthesiologist.

(My thoughts: I don't want to cry. I don't want to hurt. I've had a lifetime of pain, and I live with it daily. Sores pervade me. They are all over my head, itchy ones that feel like cold sores mixed with chicken pox. If I scratch one, they all itch, including the sores on my arms and back. How much worse is my life about to get?)

"Tylenol. No post-op opioids for pain," was his reply.

You bet my world crashed.

"I can't do Tylenol. I need to save my liver. Everyone knows the smallest dose of Tylenol can hurt the liver. Besides, I don’t want to lose my empathy. Studies show acetaminophen causes a lack of empathy,” I said.

“Ibuprofen,” was his answer.

(My thoughts: How much lower can my world crash? What the heck? Do you really know I’m a doctor, too? Do you know how many patients I’ve personally intubated through a GI bleed so they could breathe?)

“I can’t do ibuprofen,” I told him. “I can’t have a GI bleed. Or a heart attack. Or a stroke.”

“Oh, okay! Morphine and fentanyl, a mixture. Morphine lasts longer," the anesthesiologist said.

(My thoughts: I can breathe again. Now I have to be the perfect patient.)

The pathologist was cheery, polite and smiled a lot. We went over the pathology of mastocytosis, WHO classifications, the systemic vs. cutaneous forms, early diagnosis, and the bone marrow procedure I was about to have. He asked if I had enough opioids for post-op pain. I did. I concluded that he does not write his own pain prescriptions.

Once on the operating table, the surgeon caressed my head, patting it before I fell asleep. I inwardly smiled as I laid straight on my right side. Cold prep solution dripped down my lower back as I sunk into sleep.

The surgeon bore into the ileum, then sucked out the bone marrow with a syringe.

When I woke up, my butt was numb and I did not need any more pain medication. But I was not given a prescription for postoperative pain for when I went home. I was told to use my existing opioid prescription for pain, which is reasonable, as long as my doctor doesn't "count" them against me.

(My thoughts: How do patients defend themselves to get opioids for during and after surgery? I mean, I’m a doctor and I had to stick up for myself. What if the patient does not even know to ask about postoperative pain at all? They must wake up screaming, an insult to any anesthesiologist. What has happened to patient care?

They profession of anesthesiology has changed.


Dr. Margaret Aranda is a Stanford and Keck USC alumni in anesthesiology and critical care. She has dysautonomia and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) after a car accident left her with traumatic brain injuries that changed her path in life to patient advocacy.

Margaret is a board member of the Invisible Disabilities Association. She has authored six books, the most recent is The Rebel Patient: Fight for Your Diagnosis. You can follow Margaret’s expert social media advice on Twitter, Google +, Blogspot, Wordpress. and LinkedIn.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.

Study Advocates Guidelines for Postoperative Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Patients recovering from gallbladder surgery need only about a third of the opioid painkillers that are prescribed to them, according to a small new study that could lay the groundwork for new national guidelines on treating postoperative pain.

Researchers at the University of Michigan looked at prescribing data on 170 people who had their gallbladders surgically removed in a laparoscopic cholecystectomy and found that the average patient received an opioid prescription for 250mg morphine equivalent units. That's about 50 pills.


But when the researchers interviewed 100 of those patients, the amount of opioid medication they actually took after their surgeries averaged only 30mg, or about 6 pills. The remaining pills were often left sitting in their medicine cabinets for years.

"For a long time, there has been no rhyme or reason to surgical opioid prescribing, compared with all the other efforts that have been made to improve surgical care," says lead author Ryan Howard, MD, a resident in the U-M Department of Surgery who began the study while attending the medical school.

"We've been overprescribing because no one had ever really asked what's the right amount. We knew we could do better."

When U-M surgical leaders heard about the findings, they gave Howard and his colleagues permission to develop a new prescribing guideline that recommended just 15 opioid pills for gallbladder patients.

Five months later, the average prescription for the first 200 patients treated under the guideline dropped by 66 percent -- to 75mg morphine equivalent units. Requests for opioid refills didn't increase, as some had feared, but the percentage of patients getting a prescription for “safer” non-opioid painkillers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen more than doubled.

Interviews with 86 of the patients who received the smaller prescriptions showed they had the same level of pain control as those treated before -- even though they took fewer opioid painkillers. A new education guide for patients counseled them to take pain medication only as long as they have pain, and to reserve the opioid pills for pain that's not controlled by ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

"Even though the guidelines were a radical departure from their current practice, attending surgeons and residents really embraced them," said U-M researcher Jay Lee, MD. "It was very rewarding to see how effective these guidelines were in reducing excess opioid prescribing."

Researchers estimate that implementing the new guideline has kept more than 13,000 excess opioid pills out of circulation in the year since the rollout began. Their findings were published in JAMA Surgery.

U-M researchers have expanded on their efforts by developing prescribing guidelines for 11 other common surgeries, including hysterectomies and hernia repair. They believe the guidelines could serve “as a template for statewide practice transformation” and could be adopted nationally as well.   

It’s a common misconception that many patients become addicted to opioid medication after surgery. According to a recent national survey, one in ten patients believe they became addicted or dependent on opioids after they started taking them for post-operative pain. But a recent study in Canada found that long term opioid use after surgery is rare, with less than one percent of older adults still taking opioid pain medication a year after major elective surgery.

Another fallacy is that leftover pain medication is often stolen, sold or given away. The DEA says less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

Many patients are dissatisfied with the quality of pain care in hospitals. In a survey of over 1,200 patients by Pain News Network and the International Pain Foundation, 60 percent said their pain was not adequately controlled in a hospital after a surgery or treatment. And over half rated the quality of their hospital pain care as either poor or very poor.