'Lopioid Protocol' — Low-dose Opioids — Proposed for Fracture Surgery

Jonathan Gelber, MD

September 02, 2021

Orthopedic researchers from New York University (NYU), in New York City, have proposed standardizing prescribing patterns for patients after fracture surgery so as to include low-dose opioids.

In a paper presented at the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) 2021 Annual Meeting, researchers from NYU reported on the implementation of their multimodal strategy, dubbed the "lopioid protocol."

As previously reported by Medscape Medical News, according to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, orthopedic surgeons are the third highest opioid prescribers in the United States.

Dr Kennneth Egol

Kennneth A. Egol, MD, vice chair of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NYU, who is the first author of the study, was motivated to help create the protocol following misconceptions that orthopedic surgeons were helping to fuel the opioid epidemic.

Egol points to the year 1995, when pain became the fifth vital sign after body temperature, pulse rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.

Since then, in light of the opioid epidemic, the focus of physicians has shifted away from prescribing strong pain medication and reducing pain scores to zero to instead reducing pain to a manageable level.

Reducing opioid prescriptions can be challenging when patients are prescribed an anti-inflammatory and they subsequently ask their physician for a "pain pill." Patients sometimes don't understand that inflammation is what causes pain.

It can also be difficult to convince patients that medications that they can buy over the counter can adequately control their pain, as confirmed in numerous studies.

Multimodal pain therapy aims to reduce the need for opioids by supplementing their use with other oral medications and, at times, long-lasting regional nerve blocks.

Anti-inflammatories act at the site of injury or surgery where inflammation is occurring. Nerves then carry the pain signal to the brain. These signals can be dampened by medications such as gabapentin that act on the nerves themselves. The pain signal is received in the brain, where opioids act by binding to receptors in the brain.

The so-caolled lopioid protocol does not eliminate opioids completely but rather uses "safer" opioids, such as tramadol, in lieu of stronger narcotics.

The protocol began at NYU on January 1, 2019. It consists in the prescribing of tramadol, meloxicam, gabapentin, and acetaminophen.

The study presented at the AAOS meeting demonstrated statistically significant reductions in visual analogue pain scores at discharge and subsequent medication refills for the 931 patients in the lopioid group, compared to a group of 848 patients who received narcotic prescriptions containing oxycodone from the year prior to the protocol initiation.

Educating patients on the rationale for the prescription combination can help to allay their fears. Egol thinks it's important for physicians to explain the dangers of opioids to patients. He told Medscape Medical News that he also believes surgeons need to "give [patients] an understanding of why we are pursuing these protocols. They also need to know we will not ignore their pain and concerns."

Dr Brannon Orton

Brannon Orton, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon at Confluence Health, in Moses Lake, Washington. He sees a large number of trauma patients and thinks NYU is doing a good job of addressing a difficult problem in orthopedics — especially in the field of trauma.

He told Medscape Medical News, "Managing narcotics postoperatively can be challenging due to the fact that many people come into these fractures with a history of narcotic use." Not only are they used to turning to opioids for pain relief, but they also may have built up a tolerance to them.

Although he hasn't been using the lopioid protocol specifically, he has been following a multimodal approach regarding the postoperative use of narcotics. Of the study by Egol and colleagues, he said, "I think their paper presents an effective way of decreasing use of oral narcotics and still adequately managing patients' pain postoperatively." Orton's own practice utilizes tramadol, acetaminophen, and ibuprofen after fracture surgery.

From Orton's perspective, a significant challenge in implementing the lopioid protocol in practice is simply sticking to the plan. "It can become difficult when patients are pressuring staff or physicians for more narcotics. However, I feel that if everybody is on the same page with the plan, then it can be very doable."

Egol and NYU try to limit narcotic prescriptions beginning with the patient's initial visit to the emergency department (ED). The ED physicians at his institution only "prescribe small amounts of narcotics. Our ED people really limit the amount of opioids prescribed."

Egol recommends that all practitioners begin with nonnarcotic medication, even if treating a fracture nonoperatively. "Start low and go higher. I always try to start with NSAIDs [nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs] and Tylenol," he said.

Egol and Orton report no relevant financial disclosures.

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