BALTIMORE — A car crash shattered Stuart Anders’ thigh, leaving pieces of bone sticking through his skin. Yet Anders begged emergency room doctors not to give him powerful opioid painkillers — he’d been addicted once before and panicked at the thought of relapsing.
“I can’t lose what I worked for,” he said.
The nation’s opioid crisis is forcing hospitals to begin rolling out nonaddictive alternatives to treatments that have long been the mainstay for the severe pain of trauma and surgery, so they don’t save patients’ lives or limbs only to have them fall under the grip of addiction.
Anders, 53, from Essex, Maryland, was lucky to land in a Baltimore emergency room offering an option that dramatically cut his need for opioids: An ultrasound-guided nerve block bathed a key nerve in local anesthetic, keeping his upper leg numb for several days.
“It has really changed the dynamics of how we care for these patients,” said trauma anesthesiologist Dr. Ron Samet, who treated Anders.
An estimated 2 million people in the U.S. are addicted to prescription opioids, and an average of 91 Americans die every day from an overdose of those painkillers or their illicit cousin, heroin.
This grim spiral often starts in the hospital. A Harvard study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in February raised the troubling prospect that for every 48 patients newly prescribed an opioid in the emergency room, one will use the pills for at least six months over the next year. And the longer they’re used, the higher the risk for becoming dependent.
Doctors and hospitals around the country are searching for ways to relieve extreme pain while at the same time sharply limiting what was long considered their most effective tool. It’s a critical part of the effort to overcome the worst addiction crisis in U.S. history but, as Anders’ experience shows, their options are neither simple nor perfect.
Anders’ excruciating injury eventually did require a low opioid dose when the nerve block wore off but, Samet said, far less than normal.
“Provide them with good pain relief initially, for the first 24 to 48 hours after surgery; the pain that comes back after that isn’t necessarily as hard and as strong,” said Samet, an assistant anesthesiology professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
While some hospitals have automatically used opioids for pain, many are rethinking their own dependence on the painkillers, taking steps to make them a last resort rather than a starting reflex.