One of the most frequent emails we receive is one from people in pain who are waiting for a knee replacement. Why are they waiting?

Because many of these people were told that they were too young for knee replacement and that they should wait until they are old enough, or, until such time that their pain became too unbearable. “Hold out,” they are told. 

This type of thinking has lead to another problem. The use of painkillers to help people manage their knee pain before knee replacement is putting them at greater risk of knee replacement failure.

Marc Darrow MD, JD. Thank you for reading my article. You can ask me your questions about what painkillers do before and after knee replacement using the contact form below. 

In this article I will discuss the new medical research surrounding concerns of painkiller (opioid) use pre and post joint replacement surgery.

From Stanford University research: “Patients taking opioids (narcotic painkillers) prior to surgery experience prolonged postoperative opioid use, worse clinical outcomes, increased pain, and more postoperative complications.”(1)

Researchers in Canada came to the same conclusion: Here is what they wrote in the American Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery:

  • “Chronic use of opioid medications may lead to dependence or hyperalgesia, (Opioid-induced hyperalgesia is an increased sesitivity to pain) both of which might adversely affect perioperative and postoperative pain management, rehabilitation, and clinical outcomes after total knee replacement.”

The purpose of this study was to evaluate patients who underwent total knee replacement following six or more weeks of chronic opioid use for pain control and to compare them with a matched group who did not use opioids pre-operatively.

A significantly higher prevalence of complications was seen in the opioid group,

  • of the 49 knees replaced in this group –
    • 5 needed arthroscopic evaluations and
    • 8 needed revision surgery for persistent stiffness and/or pain, compared with none in the matched group.
    • Ten patients in the opioid group were referred for outpatient pain management, compared with one patient in the non-opioid group.

CONCLUSIONS: Patients who chronically use opioid medications prior to total knee replacement may be at a substantially greater risk for complications and painful prolonged recoveries. Alternative non-opioid pain medications and/or earlier referral to an orthopaedic surgeon prior to habitual opioid use should be considered for patients with painful degenerative disease of the knee.”(2)

Painkillers after joint replacement causing more concerns

The problems of painkillers after joint replacement are a cause of heightened concern in the medical community:

In a paper from leading French researchers published in the European pain journal, the doctors wrote:

  • Despite the development of multimodal analgesia (many different pain medications) for postoperative pain management, opioids are still required for effective pain relief after knee replacement.(3)

Doctors at Mount Sinai in New York wrote in The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

  • Total knee replacement is associated with substantial postoperative pain that may impair mobility, reduce the ability to participate in rehabilitation, lead to chronic pain, and reduce patient satisfaction. Traditional general anesthesia with postoperative epidural and patient-controlled opioid analgesia is associated with an undesirable adverse-effect profile, including postoperative nausea and vomiting, hypotension, urinary retention, respiratory depression, delirium, and an increased infection rate.”(4)

In the latest study doctors found that many patients undergoing hip or knee replacement are still taking prescription opioid pain medications up to six months after surgery. The study that appeared in the medical journal PAIN was led by  Jenna Goesling, PhD, of the University of Michigan, the study identifies several “red flags” for persistent opioid use–particularly previous use of high-dose opioids. The results also suggest that some patients continue to use these potentially addictive pain medications despite improvement in their hip or knee pain.(5)

Concerns about Persistent Opioid Use after Joint Replacement

Dr. Goesling and her team analyzed patterns of opioid use in 574 patients undergoing knee or hip replacement surgery. Patients were followed up at one, three, and six months after surgery to assess rates of and risk factors for long-term opioid use.

  • About 30 percent of the patients were taking opioids prior to their joint replacement surgery. Of this group, 53 percent of knee-replacement patients and 35 percent of hip replacement patients were still taking opioids at six months after surgery.

Patients who were not taking opioids prior to surgery were less likely to report persistent opioid use: About 8 percent in the knee-replacement group and 4 percent in the hip-replacement group continued to take opioids at the six-month follow up. Although these are relatively small percentages, this suggests that a portion of patients who were “opioid naïve” prior to surgery will become new chronic opioid users following arthroplasty.

  • The strongest predictor of long-term opioid use was taking high-dose opioids before joint replacement surgery. For patients in the highest preoperative dose group (equivalent to more than 60 milligrams of oral morphine per day), the predicted probability of persistent opioid use at six months was 80 percent.
  • Among patients not previously taking opioids, those with higher pain scores the day of surgery–both in the affected joint and overall body pain–were more likely to report persistent opioid use at six months.
  • Opioid use was also more likely for patients who scored higher on a measure of pain catastrophizing–exaggerated responses and worries about pain–than those with depressive symptoms.

For all patients, reductions in overall body pain were associated with decreased odds of being on opioids at six months. However, improvement in knee or hip pain after joint replacement did not reduce the likelihood of long-term opioid use.

Persistent opioid use after knee or hip replacement surgery may be more common than previously reported, the new results suggest. Importantly, continued opioid use is not necessarily related to pain in the affected joint. “We hypothesize that the reasons patients continue to use opioids may be due to pain in other areas, self-medicating affective distress, and therapeutic opioid dependence,” the researchers write.6.

Ask Dr. Darrow about your knee pain


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1. Hah JM, Sharifzadeh Y, Wang BM, Gillespie MJ, Goodman SB, Mackey SC, Carroll IR. Factors Associated with Opioid Use in a Cohort of Patients Presenting for Surgery. Pain Res Treat. 2015;2015:829696. doi: 10.1155/2015/829696. Epub 2015 Dec 31. PubMed PMID: 26881072; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4736213.

2 Zywiel MG, Stroh DA, Lee SY, Bonutti PM, Mont MA. Chronic opioid use prior to total knee arthroplasty. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2011 Nov 2;93(21):1988-93. doi: 10.2106/JBJS.J.01473.

3: Thomazeau J, Rouquette A, Martinez V, Rabuel C, Prince N, Laplanche JL, Nizard R, Bergmann JF, Perrot S, Lloret-Linares C. Acute pain Factors predictive of post-operative pain and opioid requirement in multimodal analgesia following knee replacement. Eur J Pain. 2015 Oct 30. doi: 10.1002/ejp.808.

4.  Moucha CS, Weiser MC, Levin EJ. Current Strategies in Anesthesia and Analgesia for Total Knee Arthroplasty.  J Am Acad Orthop Surg. 2016 Feb;24(2):60-73. doi: 10.5435/JAAOS-D-14-00259.

5 Goesling J, Moser SE, Zaidi B, Hassett AL, Hilliard P, Hallstrom B, Clauw DJ, Brummett CM. Trends and predictors of opioid use following total knee and total hip arthroplasty. Pain. 2016 Jun;157(6):1259.

6. http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-05/wkh-mpc053116.php