Perioperative beta-blockers in noncardiac surgery: The evidence continues to evolve

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ABSTRACTThe effectiveness and safety of giving beta-blockers to patients undergoing noncardiac surgery remain controversial. The use of these drugs in this clinical scenario increased after the publication of two positive trials in the late 1990s and was encouraged by national organizations and clinical guidelines. However, when several subsequent studies failed to show a benefit, recommendations became more limited and use decreased. This paper reviews recent evidence for and against the perioperative use of beta-blockers.


  • If patients have other indications for beta-blocker therapy, such as a history of heart failure, myocardial infarction in the past 3 years, or atrial fibrillation, they should be started on a beta-blocker before surgery if time permits.
  • Of the various beta-blockers, the cardioselective ones appear to be preferable in the perioperative setting.
  • Beta-blockers may need to be started at least 1 week before surgery, titrated to control the heart rate, and used only in patients at high risk (Revised Cardiac Risk Index score > 2 or 3) undergoing high-risk surgery.
  • Further clinical trials are necessary to clarify the ongoing controversy, particularly regarding the risk of stroke, which was increased in the large Perioperative Ischemic Evaluation (POISE) trial.



Prophylactic use of beta-blockers in the perioperative period is highly controversial. Initial studies in the 1990s were favorable, but evidence has been conflicting since then.

The pendulum swung away from routinely recommending beta-blockers after the publication of negative results from several studies, including the Perioperative Ischemic Evaluation (POISE) trial in 2008.1 Highlighting this change in practice, a Canadian study2 found that the use of perioperative beta-blockade increased between 1999 and 2005 but subsequently declined from 2005 to 2010. However, there was no appreciable change in this pattern after the POISE trial or after changes in the American College of Cardiology guidelines in 2002 and 2006.3

In 2008, Harte and Jaffer reviewed the perioperative use of beta-blockers in noncardiac surgery in this journal.4 Since then, a number of meta-analyses and retrospective observational studies have reported variable findings related to specific beta-blockers and specific complications.

In this paper, we review the rationale and recent evidence for and against the perioperative use of beta-blockers as guidance for internists and hospitalists.


Myocardial infarction and unstable angina are the leading cardiovascular causes of death after surgery.5 These events are multifactorial. Some are caused by the stress of surgery, which precipitates physiologic changes related to inflammatory mediators, sympathetic tone, and oxygen supply and demand; others are caused by acute plaque rupture, thrombosis, and occlusion.6 Most perioperative infarcts are non-Q-wave events7 and occur within the first 2 days after the procedure, when the effects of anesthetics, pain, fluid shifts, and physiologic changes are greatest. Because multiple causes may contribute to perioperative myocardial infarction, a single preventive strategy may not be sufficient.8,9

Beta-blockers do several things that may be beneficial in the perioperative setting. They reduce myocardial oxygen demand by decreasing the force of contraction and by slowing the heart rate, and slowing the heart rate increases diastolic perfusion time.10 They suppress arrhythmias; they limit leukocyte recruitment, the production of free radicals, metalloproteinase activity, monocyte activation, release of growth factors, and inflammatory cytokine response; and they stabilize plaque.11 Their long-term use may also alter intracellular signaling processes, thus improving cell survival by decreasing the expression of receptors for substances that induce apoptosis.12


Mangano et al13 began the beta-blocker trend in 1996 with a study in 200 patients known to have coronary artery disease or risk factors for it who were undergoing noncardiac surgery. Patients were randomized to receive either atenolol orally and intravenously, titrated to control the heart rate, or placebo in the immediate perioperative period.

The atenolol group had less perioperative ischemia but no difference in short-term rates of myocardial infarction and death. However, the death rate was lower in the atenolol group at 6 months after discharge and at 2 years, although patients who died in the immediate postoperative period were excluded from the analysis.

Although this finding did not appear to make sense physiologically, we now know that patients may experience myocardial injury without infarction after noncardiac surgery, a phenomenon associated with an increased risk of death in the short term and the long term.14 Preventing these episodes may be the explanation for the improved outcome.

The DECREASE trial15 (Dutch Echocardiographic Cardiac Risk Evaluation Applying Stress Echocardiography) provided additional support for beta-blocker use. The patients were at high risk, had abnormal dobutamine stress echocardiograms, and were undergoing vascular surgery; 112 patients were randomized to receive either oral bisoprolol (started 1 month before surgery, titrated to control the heart rate, and continued for 1 month after surgery) or placebo.

The study was stopped early because the bisoprolol group reportedly had a 90% lower rate of myocardial infarction and cardiac death 1 month after surgery. However, the study was criticized because the total number of patients enrolled was small and the benefit was much greater than usual for any pharmacologic intervention, thus calling the results into question.

In a follow-up study,16 survivors continued to be followed while receiving bisoprolol or usual care. The incidence of myocardial infarction or cardiac death at 2 years was significantly lower in the group receiving bisoprolol (12% vs 32%, odds ratio [OR] 0.30, P = .025).

Boersma et al,17 in an observational study, analyzed data from all 1,351 patients scheduled for major vascular surgery being considered for enrollment in the DECREASE trial. The DECREASE protocol required patients to undergo dobutamine stress echocardiography if they had one or more risk factors (age 70 or older, angina, prior myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, treatment for ventricular arrhythmia, treatment for diabetes mellitus, or limited exercise capacity) or if their physician requested it. Twenty-seven percent received beta-blockers.

In multivariate analysis, clinical predictors of adverse outcome were age 70 or older; current or prior history of angina; and prior myocardial infarction, heart failure, or cerebrovascular accident.

In patients who had fewer than three clinical risk factors, beta-blocker use was associated with a lower rate of complications (0.8% vs 2.3%). Dobutamine stress echocardiography had minimal predictive value in this lower-risk group, suggesting that stress testing may not be necessary in this group if beta-blockers are used appropriately. However, in patients who had three or more risk factors, this test did provide additional prognostic information; those without stress-induced ischemia had lower event rates than those with ischemia, and beta-blocker use further reduced those rates, except in patients with extensive ischemia (more than five left ventricular segments involved).

The Revised Cardiac Risk Index. Lee et al18 devised an index to assist in preoperative cardiac risk stratification that was subsequently incorporated into the 2007 American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association preoperative risk guidelines. (It does not, however, address the beta-blocker issue.) It consists of six independent risk-predictors of major cardiac complications derived from 4,315 patients over age 50 undergoing non-cardiac surgery. The risk factors, each of which is given 1 point, are:

  • Congestive heart failure based on history or examination
  • Renal insufficiency (serum creatinine level > 2 mg/dL)
  • Myocardial infarction, symptomatic ischemic heart disease, or a positive stress test
  • History of transient ischemic attack or stroke
  • Diabetes requiring insulin
  • High-risk surgery (defined as intrathoracic, intra-abdominal, or suprainguinal vascular surgery).

Patients with 3 or more points are considered to be at high risk, and those with 1 or 2 points are considered to be at intermediate risk. The American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association preoperative cardiac risk algorithm subsequently included five of these six risk factors (the type of surgery was considered separately) and made recommendations concerning noninvasive stress testing and heart rate control.

On the basis of these studies, specialty societies, guideline committees, and hospitals enthusiastically recommended the prophylactic use of beta-blockers to decrease postoperative cardiac complications.

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