Despite Widespread Use, Most Patients Do Not Want to Take Opioids After Surgery: Survey

Pilot program found targeted use of NSAIDs was successful in managing many patients' pain after surgery

The opioid abuse crisis in the United States reached new heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, but a new survey indicates most patients do not want the addictive painkillers after surgery, and are willing to try other methods if they can effectively manage pain.

Researchers from Orlando Health, a network of community and specialty hospitals in Florida, announced the results of a national survey this month, focusing on attitudes toward opioid painkillers. The new survey indicates patients are willing to go without opioids after surgery if their pain can be managed in alternative ways.

Currently, four out of five Americans believe opioids, such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, are necessary to manage pain after surgery. Roughly 65% of Americans worry more about treating surgical pain than they are worried about the risks of opioid addiction, despite the widespread increase in abuse and misuse. However, the new study indicates 68% of Americans are willing to try opioid-free pain management after having surgery.

Dr. Luke Elms at Orlando Health has implemented an opioid-free pain management system. He is a general surgeon and uses a specific protocol that involves common over-the-counter drugs like Tylenol, Advil and muscle relaxers to treat pain. By using this approach with three types of pain relievers, and not opioids, he believes patient pain can be more specifically targeted than it can be with opioids and with fewer negative long-term side effects.

The pain program works in conjunction with a trained coordinator who can recognize those struggling with, or at risk for, opioid use disorder. The hospital also provides counsel and resources to ensure patients are supported while they are in the hospital and after they are discharged. Patients can even contact counselors in the middle of the night.

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Many critics blame doctor overprescribing for painkiller overdose problems. A recent $465 million opioid verdict against Johnson & Johnson was overturned. It was the first of a number of lawsuits blaming drug manufacturers for the deadly opioid abuse crisis.

Largely owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for drug overdoses with more than 93,000 deaths in the US. In recent years, the opioid epidemic has only continued to worsen as opioids now account for more than 70% of all drug overdose deaths.

Dr. Elms at Orlando Health recommends all doctors attempt using the combination approach to pain management. Many opioid addictions begin after being prescribed painkillers in the hospital after surgery or after an emergency room visit. Elms advocates for the comprehensive approach, using nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs with Tylenol and muscles relaxers, to treat the pain without the risk of addiction. By avoiding offering patients the painkillers to begin with, it may help improve the ever worsening opioid abuse epidemic.

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