We can achieve opioid-free analgesia after childbirth: Stop prescribing opioids after vaginal delivery and reduce their use after cesarean

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Routine use of opioids after childbirth should be discontinued. Three practical strategies can help ObGyns reduce opioid prescriptions and adequately manage patients’ pain.



CASE New mother receives unneeded opioids after CD

A house officer wrote orders for a healthy patient who had just had an uncomplicated cesarean delivery (CD). The hospital’s tradition dictates orders for oxycodone plus acetaminophen tablets in addition to ibuprofen for all new mothers. At the time of the patient’s discharge, the same house officer prescribed 30 tablets of oxycodone plus acetaminophen “just in case,” although the patient had required only a few tablets while in the hospital on postoperative day 2 and none on the day of discharge.

Stuck in the habit

Prescribing postpartum opioids in the United States is almost habitual. Both optimizing patient satisfaction and minimizing patient phone calls may be driving this well-established pattern. Interestingly, a survey study of obstetric providers in 14 countries found that clinicians in 13 countries prescribe opioids “almost never” after vaginal delivery.1 The United States was the 1 outlier, with providers reporting prescribing opioids “on a regular basis” after vaginal birth. Similarly, providers in 10 countries reported prescribing opioids “almost never” after CD, while those in the United States reported prescribing opioids “almost always” in this context.

Moreover, mounting data suggest that many patients do not require the quantity of opioids prescribed and that our overprescribing may be causing more harm than good.

The problem of overprescribing opioids after childbirth

Opioid analgesia has long been the mainstay of treatment for postpartum pain, which when poorly controlled is associated with the development of postpartum depression and chronic pain.2 However, common adverse effects of opioids, including nausea, drowsiness, and dizziness, similarly can interfere with self-care and infant care. Of additional concern, a 2016 claims data study found that 1 of 300 opioid-naïve women who were prescribed opioids at discharge after CD used these medications persistently in the first year postpartum.3

Many women do not use the opioids that are prescribed to them at discharge, thus making tablets available for potential diversion into the community—a commonly recognized source of opioid misuse and abuse.4,5 In a 2018 Committee Opinion on postpartum pain management, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) stated that “a stepwise, multimodal approach emphasizing nonopioid analgesia as first-line therapy is safe and effective for vaginal deliveries and cesarean deliveries.”6 The Committee Opinion also asserted that “opioid medication is an adjunct for patients with uncontrolled pain despite adequate first-line therapy.”6

Despite efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and ACOG to improve opioid prescribing patterns after childbirth, the vast majority of women receive opioids in the hospital and at discharge not only after CD, but after vaginal delivery as well.4,7 Why has tradition prevailed over data, and why have we not changed?

Continue to: Common misconceptions about reducing opioid use...


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