New painkilling techiques are being tested in the hope of reducing the amount of medication prescribed after surgery. Opioids are a common pain relief medication but there are concerns that they are being overprescribed after surgery. They reduce the intensity of pain signals before they reach the brain and affect the areas of the brain that control emotion. They range from hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine and codeine and differ greatly in strength.
These prescription drugs can be extremely addictive. A 2015 US study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings, found one in four people who have been prescribed opioids go on to develop an addition. It is a worrying pandemic that’s particularly affecting young athletes. UK data is less comprehensive than that gathered in America, but a survey released by the charity Action on Addiction last year estimated that nearly one in ten UK adults believe they could be or could have been addicted to opioid painkillers, with a quarter taking opioids for more than five years.
Doctors are hoping the new painkilling techniques being tested may be used in conjunction with or instead of opioid medication to minimise patients’ reliance on this form of pain relief.
Combination of non-addictive treatments is key
Rotator cuff surgery can involve a painful recovery process, hence strong opioid prescriptions are often required in the initial post-operative period. However, the new painkilling techniques being trialled aim to deliver the same relief without the addictive nature of opioids and the dangerous side effects.
While the techniques have been used individually to relieve pain after surgery, it’s the combination of the different methods which is key according to surgeons at NYU Langone Medical Center’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery in New York who are aiming to greatly minimise the pain experienced after elbow or shoulder surgery and, therefore, the use of opioids. Their techniques include:
- Non-addictive anaesthetic – including the use of injections around the nerves in the neck and shoulder
- Catheter implant – delivering anaesthetic over a set period of time
- Mechanical stimulation and wearable icing devices – helping to reduce swelling and pain throughout physiotherapy
- Drug regimens – helping patients to move onto non-addictive medication like Tylenol
There are of course some potential drawbacks with these techniques. Patients have to become accustomed to having weak or numb arms for a number of days. Catheter implants can sometimes be difficult to keep in place and they can seem like an ‘intimidating’ option.
Instead, single injections can be used which would effectively block pain signals for up to 24 hours. Opioid medication can still be used for a short amount of time before transitioning patients onto other medication
Many units, including Fortius London Shoulder specialists now employ regional anaesthesia, where injections are placed about the nerves in the brachial plexus to reduce post operative pain requirements. There are some risks that come with these injections such as nerve damage and the potential for the anaesthetic to leak, though these are relatively small.
Understanding rotator cuff surgery
Rotator cuff surgery is carried out in one of two ways. It can be performed via open surgery or arthroscopically. In the open surgery method, an incision is made in the skin and the procedure is performed through a large wound – the torn tendons are reaattched to the bone.
Arthroscopic surgery is performed using an arthroscope, or mini camera, so the surgeon can view the inside of the shoulder on a monitor. Small, specially designed surgical instruments are used so less extensive incisions are required. Arthroscopic surgery typically causes less trauma to the muscles surrounding the shoulder, which in turn reduces the discomfort felt after the surgery.
A study entitled ‘Effectiveness of Open and Arthroscopic Rotator Cuff Surgery’ published in the NIHR Journals Library, provided a better understanding of each method. Interestingly, the post-operative pain management required was similar with the open and arthroscopic method. Two-thirds of participants were still taking painkillers after two weeks and after eight weeks, though painkiller use was decreased from 66% to 55%.
Overall, regardless of the type of technique used, recovery from rotator cuff surgery should not be underestimated.