Perioperative medication management: General principles and practical applications

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An extensive medication history, including the use of nonprescription agents and herbal products, is the foundation of effective perioperative medication management. Decisions about stopping or continuing medications perioperatively should be based on withdrawal potential, the potential for disease progression if therapy is interrupted, the potential for drug interactions with anesthesia, and the patient’s short-term quality of life. In general, medications with withdrawal potential should be continued perioperatively, nonessential medications that increase surgical risk should be discontinued before surgery, and clinical judgment should be exercised in other cases.


  • Common drugs that have been associated with withdrawal symptoms when discontinued preoperatively include selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta-blockers, clonidine, statins, and corticosteroids.
  • In general, most nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs should be stopped at least 3 days before surgery.
  • Although ACE inhibitors and angiotensin receptor blockers intensify the hypotensive effects of anesthesia, it may be prudent to continue them perioperatively unless their only indication is for hypertension and the patient’s blood pressure is well controlled.
  • Herbal medications should be stopped at least 7 days before surgery, owing to the uncertainly over their actual contents.
  • Among psychotropics, SSRIs, tricyclic antidepressants, benzodiazepines, and antipsychotics are generally safe to continue perioperatively.



As a hospitalist who practices in a perioperative clinic, I probably spend more of my time with patients reviewing and discussing the medications they are taking than on any other single subject. Surgical patients—many of whom are elderly—commonly are on multiple medications, have renal or hepatic disease that can alter drug metabolism, and may not be adequately educated about their medication regimens.

Patient safety is the overriding concern behind perioperative medication management, consistent with the medication-related objectives in the Joint Commission’s 2009 National Patient Safety Goals. 1 The increasing surgical burden that comes with an aging population, along with rising expectations for functional recovery, has likewise elevated the importance of perioperative medication management.

Despite these demands, there is scant evidence from randomized controlled trials to directly guide perioperative medication management. For this reason, recommendations in this area rely largely on other forms of evidence, including expert consensus, case reports, in vitro studies, recommendations from pharmaceutical companies, and other known data (pharmacokinetics, drug interactions with anesthetic agents, and effects of the agent on the primary disease and on perioperative risk).

This article reviews general principles of perioperative medication management and then presents four case vignettes to explore perioperative recommendations for a number of common medication classes. It is not intended as a comprehensive review of the perioperative management of all medications, as numerous classes (antiplatelets, beta-blockers, oral hypogycemic agents, insulin, statins) are discussed in detail elsewhere in this proceedings supplement.


A comprehensive medication history is fundamental

Effective perioperative management of medications requires an understanding of the patient and his or her comorbidities so that the risk of perioperative decompensation can be gauged. This understanding stems from a thorough medical history that includes a comprehensive medication history to provide a complete inventory of the following:

  • All prescription medications
  • All over-the-counter (OTC) agents (including nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs [NSAIDs])
  • All vitamins
  • All herbal medications.

When to stop, when to resume?

Guidance on stopping and resuming medications in the perioperative period is relatively absent from the literature. General considerations include the following:

  • The potential for withdrawal when stopping a medication
  • The progression of disease with interruption of drug therapy
  • The potential for interactions with anesthetic agents if the medication is continued.

Withdrawal potential

Abrupt discontinuation of some drugs may lead to unnecessary complications due to the potential for withdrawal. Common medications that have been associated with withdrawal symptoms are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), beta-blockers, clonidine, statins, and corticosteroids. 2 A recent systematic literature review concluded that continuation of chronic corticosteroid therapy without supplemental (stress) doses of corticosteroids is appropriate unless patients have primary disease of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, in which case perioperative stress dosing is recommended to avoid acute adrenal insufficiency (addisonian crisis). 3

Patients on chronic drugs are more likely to have complications

In a medication survey of 1,025 patients admitted to a general surgery unit, Kennedy et al reported that 49% of the patients were taking medications (other than vitamins) unrelated to their surgical procedure. 4 Even while this percentage is considerably lower than what I observe in my practice, this study showed that medication use has important perioperative consequences 4:


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