Dr. Cornelius Thiels and colleagues including Dr. W. Michael Hooten recently published an article, “Chronic use of tramadol after acute pain episode: cohort study” in the British Medical Journal. The key conclusion of this study is that the medication tramadol, which although an opioid medication is considered by the FDA to have less addictive potential than opioids such as oxycodone or hydrocodone, had just as much potential for prolonged use after surgery as other opioids. These findings highlight an important opportunity for patients and their doctors to have thoughtful and informed discussions about acute pain management in the post-operative period.
As a fellow in the Pain Division at Mayo Clinic, I have many conversations with patients regarding management of acute and chronic pain. In the hospital, I often am working with patients and their surgical teams to help manage pain after surgery. In the clinic, I often see patients to develop plans to manage chronic pain including pain that persists weeks and months after surgery. Opioids are almost always a part of this discussion, and our conversations are very individualized according to the patient. Some patients going into surgery have been using opioid medications for many years; some are opioid naïve or have only taken opioids sporadically and for short periods in the past. Some of my patients have a history of addiction and require a pain management strategy that minimizes the use of opioids or avoids them altogether. It is very important that every plan designed for effective post-surgical pain management takes into consideration the history, values and goals of each patient and is tailored to the needs of each individual patient. The culture of Mayo Clinic and within our division is to prioritize the needs of each patient, and this is always the focus of each pain management recommendation.
Most of my patients share the goal to avoid starting or increasing long-term opioid medication use after surgery, as we discuss long-term consequences including the potential for addiction, tolerance, and worsening chronic pain. Strategies for managing post-operative pain include maximizing our use of non-opioid medications and strategies while using the minimal effective dose of opioid medication for the shortest period of time. This is less than or equal to 3 days for most patients, and for nearly all patients and surgeries at most a period of 7 days. If I happen to have the opportunity to meet with a patient before surgery to discuss their upcoming surgery, I find it very helpful to discuss the patient’s hopes and expectations regarding their pain management plan. Many patients understandably have some fear or anxiety regarding post-operative pain, especially if they have had negative experiences in the past or if this is their first surgery. Most patients do very well with post-operative pain management, but our division of pain management specialists is available to help if there are any questions or concerns.
Dr. Thiels’ article will impact my practice and conversations with patients by having good evidence around which to have a conversation about opioid medicines. Many patients do hold the belief, as do non-pain medicine specialist physicians, that tramadol is a completely safe alternative to more traditional opioids such as oxycodone or hydrocodone. We know from research and the experiences of our patients that this is not true, and the use of tramadol carries similar risks in terms of addiction, dependence, tolerance and prolonged use as traditional opioids. One of my most important jobs is to make sure that my patients have a good understanding of the risks and benefits of various management plans, including medications. Our communities and our nation continues to cope with the so-called opioid crisis, and while a better understanding of the profound risks of the use of opioid medications in chronic pain is long overdue, there is a lot of misinformation out there as well. The more evidence-based information that we have available to us to discuss with our patients, the better, and I am grateful to Dr. Thiels and his colleagues including the Pain Division’s own Dr. Hooten to having investigated the important question of the risks of prolonged use of opioids after surgery. Interestingly, fewer than 10% of the nearly 445,000 patients in this nationwide sample developed additional or persistent opioid use after surgery, as defined by filling of opioid prescriptions 90 days or more following surgery. This does align with our clinical experience of most patients not developing problematic use of opioid medicines after surgery. Whenever possible we identify patients at increased risk prior to surgery and design our plan accordingly. It is important to understand that tramadol carries similar risks as oxycodone or hydrocodone in this regard, and we should make sure to counsel our patients appropriately.
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