Could This New Pain Medication Help Curb The Opioid Crisis?

By Britni de la Cretaz 05/24/17

Some physicians are calling the long-lasting anesthetic a game changer.

a doctor holding an ampule of medication and a syringe.

A pharmaceutical company based in New Jersey has developed a non-narcotic pain medication that it feels could help curb the opioid crisis and change the way doctors treat patients’ pain.

Pacira Pharmaceuticals, the manufacturer of Exparel, claims that—along with reducing patients' exposure to opioids and thereby reducing their addiction risk—the medication can reduce hospitalization lengths and other opioid-specific symptoms like nausea and constipation.

Exparel has been on the market for five years, and "in the next couple of weeks, we will treat our three-millionth patient in the United States," said Pacira CEO Dave Stack, according He added, "There's very little doubt that we have had some modest impact on [the] opioid epidemic."

The drug is a long-lasting anesthetic that is reported to control pain for up to 72 hours following a surgical procedure. It can be injected directly into the surgical site during a surgery and acts as a numbing agent. "It has changed the way I think about treating patients from the beginning until the end," said orthopedic surgeon Dr. Paul Sethi. "I talk about pain medication differently. My patients understand pain medications and the risks differently."

According to WRIC, more than 70 million post-surgical patients are prescribed an opioid painkiller, and 1 in 15 of them use the painkillers long-term, which puts them at risk for addiction or overdose.

But Exparel has not been without controversy. In late 2015, two different studies were released showing that the drug was no more effective than an older form of the treatment, bupivacaine. The difference in price, however, is staggering. The wholesale price for a vial of Exparel costs about $285 versus about $3 for bupivacaine, according to STAT News.

“We’re not saying Exparel didn’t help the patient, and it appears to be a safe drug to use,” said Dr. Rajesh Jain, an orthopedic surgeon at Virtua Health System in Voorhees, New Jersey, who coauthored of one of the studies. “The big issue is if it’s worth the cost. We didn’t find it to be any more effective, so there’s no reason to spend more on an expensive drug.”

But physicians like Sethi feel the drug has been a game changer. "It [has] half my patients for shoulder replacement taking only Tylenol afterwards," he said.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.