Over half of the patients who used opioid painkillers to relieve back pain were still using them a year after surgery to repair their spines, according to a new study that raised concerns about the long-term use of opioids.
The small study, one of the first to study postoperative opioid use after spine surgery, followed 172 patients for 12 months after elective cervical spine surgery. Patients were asked about their opioid use both before and after the surgeries.
Researchers found that 51 percent of the patients who were using opioids before the surgery still were using the drugs a year later. And among those who were not using opioids before surgery, nearly 18% were using them one year later. Overall, 55 patients or 32% were using opioids a year after their surgeries.
But regardless of whether they used opioids or not, patients reported high levels of satisfaction with their surgeries. Over 70% of opioid and non-opioid users said they were extremely or somewhat satisfied with pain relief after surgery.
“Patients with and without 12-month opioid use reported similar functional outcome, bodily pain scores, and satisfaction with pain relief,” wrote lead author Marjorie Wang, MD, of the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Wang found the results surprising.
“There was sort of a disconnect there,” she told Medpage Today. “I would have expected opioid use to go down.”
Because opioid use continued for most patients after their surgeries – and because many were satisfied with the outcome of their surgeries — it suggests that taking the drugs can lead to long-term use.
“Interventions targeted at decreasing opioid use may need to focus on patient factors such as preoperative opioid use or duration of symptoms before surgery,” she said.
Wang believes more research is needed to see if non-narcotic alternatives can be used to treat back pain. That includes anti-seizure drugs, anti-depressants, anti-inflammatory drugs, exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy.