Medical School Looks To Substitute Opioids With Nerve Blocks

By McCarton Ackerman 10/03/16

While nerve blocks have been around for decades, they are not widely used in the medical field. 

 Medical School Looks To Substitute Opioids With Nerve Blocks

A medical school out of Nashville may have found a groundbreaking approach to keeping patients off addictive opioids while still providing the pain relief they need.

Nashville Public Radio reported that the Middle Tennessee School of Anesthesia (MTSA) has restructured its program so students don’t instinctively lean on prescribing opioids once in practice. Instead, they’re focusing on nerve blocks that deaden a specific area instead of knocking a patient out completely. Although nerve blocks are most commonly known in the form of epidurals, improved technology is allowing them to be more widely used.

Chris Hulin, president of MTSA, recently had a successful nerve block while undergoing foot surgery. During the surgery, Hulin “said 'hi' to the surgeon a couple of times during the case. We conversed. Felt zero pain. Didn’t have any sensation in my foot for 24 hours.” Post-surgery, he only took ibuprofen to handle post-op pain.

However, nerve blocks are still not widely used in the medical field and MTSA students struggle to even find operating rooms where they could practice them, according to NPR. But with opioid addiction continuing to rise, MTSA staff believes it is vital to increase access to this service.

"We want to eliminate or potentially decrease the probability that the patient is going to be exposed to those opiates for the very first time," said Patrick Moss, who teaches acute pain management at MTSA. "We want to do everything we can to make that patient happy. And I think sometimes that's been unfortunately the inadvertent withholding of therapies such as what we're teaching here at our institution."

Despite new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that call for limiting opioid prescriptions, new findings indicate that most surgeons are disregarding them. A study released last month from doctors at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire showed that out of the 642 patients they followed post-surgery, more than 90% were prescribed opioids. In later interviews with 127 patients, it was revealed they only took 29% of the medication prescribed to them.

“We live in a culture in which the expectation is that we can 'fix' everything,” said Jane C. Ballantyne, Professor of Education and Research in the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine at the University of Washington, exclusively to The Fix in January 2013. “It’s hard for physicians to say ‘no’ when patients demand opioids for pain because both patients and physicians have come to believe that opioids offer a solution."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.