evidence-based guidelines, opioids, pain management, postoperative pain



  1. Manworren, Renee C.B. PhD, APRN, PCNS-BC, AP-PMN, FAAN
  2. Gordon, Debra B. DNP, RN, FAAN
  3. Montgomery, Robert DNP, RN-BC, ACNS-BC


Acute postoperative pain remains undertreated despite the dramatic increase in opioid prescribing in the United States over the past 20 years. Inadequately relieved postoperative pain may be a risk factor for persistent postoperative pain, chronic pain, and disability. In an effort to promote evidence-based strategies for optimal postoperative pain management, the American Pain Society published a new postoperative pain management guideline in 2016. Its 32 recommendations for interdisciplinary and multimodal postoperative pain management are stratified according to risks and benefits, based on varying levels of evidence. This article aims to help nurses translate the recommendations into clinical practice, while providing the historical context in which the guidelines emerged and describing current events that may affect guideline implementation.


Article Content

The consequences of widespread opioid misuse have focused the nation's attention on the issue of pain and the limited options for treating pain. Both our conceptual models for understanding pain and our efforts to improve pain management through evidence-based approaches have evolved over the past five decades and continue to do so (see Table 11-19). But while public advocacy and legislative efforts focus on combating prescription opioid misuse, nurses must continue providing evidence-based care to patients with pain, which includes opioid administration as part of a multimodal approach to postoperative pain management.

Figure. Nurses at th... - Click to enlarge in new window Nurses at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago manage the postoperative pain of a baby boy following a heart transplant. Photo courtesy of the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.
Table 1 - Click to enlarge in new window Historical and Current Events That Have Influenced Pain Care

In this article, we review the evidence-based clinical practice guideline on the management of postoperative pain, which was approved by the American Pain Society (APS), the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine (ASRA), and the American Society of Anesthesiologists' (ASA) Committee on Regional Anesthesia, Executive Committee, and Administrative Council.12 We explain the strength of guideline recommendations and the quality of supportive evidence, point to evidentiary gaps that provide research opportunities for nurses, and suggest ways that nurses can implement this guideline. In addition, we provide the historical context in which the guideline emerged and highlight current health care policy initiatives that may influence guideline implementation.



More than 50 million surgeries are performed in the United States each year.20-22 Research suggests that fewer than half of patients undergoing surgery will report adequate postoperative pain relief and more than 80% will report moderate to severe postoperative pain.12, 23 Inadequately controlled postoperative pain is well known to impede functional recovery and reduce quality of life. Several studies of postoperative pain further suggest an association between the intensity of pain following various types of surgery and the subsequent development of chronic pain.24


Postoperative patients with chronic pain. It may be particularly challenging to manage acute postoperative pain in patients who have been using analgesic opioid therapy to treat their chronic pain. In the United States, more than 100 million adults have chronic pain,25 and those who require surgery may be at risk for inadequate postoperative pain relief, particularly if they have been treating their chronic pain with opioids and are now opioid tolerant. Managing acute postoperative pain in patients who have developed opioid tolerance may require the use of higher opioid dosages, with the accompanying dose-dependent risks.13



The clinical practice guideline on the management of postoperative pain endorsed by the APS, ASRA, and ASA sought to promote safe and effective evidence-based postoperative pain management for children and adults, including pregnant women.12 To develop the guideline, investigators reviewed more than 6,500 abstracts published between 1992-when the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research (now the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality [AHRQ]) released the clinical practice guideline Acute Pain Management: Operative or Medical Procedures and Trauma-and December 2015. The guideline committee also considered reference lists of relevant articles, including 107 systematic reviews and 858 primary studies not included in the systematic reviews, and suggestions from expert reviewers. The stated goal of the resulting guideline is "to promote evidence-based, effective, and safer postoperative pain management in children and adults."12 The evidence review and final guideline includes 32 recommendations for the management of postoperative pain, covering preoperative education, perioperative pain management planning, use of pharmacologic and nonpharmacologic treatment strategies, organizational policies and procedures, and transition to outpatient care (see Table 212).

Table 2 - Click to enlarge in new window Recommendations from the Clinical Practice Guideline on the Management of Postoperative Pain endorsed by the APS, the ASRA, and the ASA

Strength of recommendations and quality of evidence. The APS guideline development process used methods adapted from the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) working group and the AHRQ Effective Health Care Program to rate each recommendation based on the strength (strong or weak) and quality (high, moderate, or low) of the evidence.12, 26, 27 Strong recommendations are those that "can apply to most patients in most circumstances without reservation,"26 or those for which the benefits clearly outweigh potential harms.12 Recommendations were rated weak when the "best action may differ depending on circumstances or patients' or societal values,"26 or when the evidentiary weight of benefits to risks is smaller.12 Grading of the evidence "considered the type, number, size, and quality of studies; strength of associations or effects; and consistency of results among studies."12 Of the 32 recommendations, four were judged to be based on high-quality evidence and 11 on low-quality evidence.


Research opportunities for nurses. Guideline recommendations with low-quality or insufficient evidence ratings represent research opportunities for nurses, whose knowledge of pain integrates the behavioral and biological sciences and is critical for furthering postoperative pain management. The APS, ASRA, and ASA guideline panel found insufficient evidence to either support or discourage the use of a number of therapies commonly used to treat postoperative pain. Ice, for example, is often applied to surgical sites to provide local analgesia and reduce swelling. However, studies of localized cold therapy have reported inconsistent results, often finding no differences in postoperative pain or analgesic use among patients who did and did not receive cold therapy for pain or swelling.28, 29 The application of ice is relatively safe, inexpensive, and acceptable to most patients, and its recommendation is within the nurse's scope of practice in most states. Nursing studies seeking to clarify the comparative effectiveness of postoperative cold therapy in different patient populations undergoing various surgical procedures could, therefore, fill significant research gaps. Other areas identified by members of the guideline panel as providing insufficient evidence to inform clinical practice include best timing and optimal methods for delivering perioperative patient education, nonpharmacologic interventions, combination or multimodal analgesia, monitoring of patient response to postoperative pain management, neuraxial and regional analgesic techniques, and delivery of organizational care.30 Further investigation in each of these areas is needed to advance our understanding of postoperative pain management.



Since long-term opioid use to treat chronic pain often begins with acute pain treatment, some recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain13 may be relevant in managing acute postoperative pain. For example, the CDC guideline, which is based on scientific evidence, informed expert opinion, and public input, recognizes that opioids are indicated for the treatment of severe acute pain and recommends they be prescribed at the lowest effective dose for no longer than the expected duration of severe pain. The guideline, however, makes no recommendation for postoperative use of opioids, clearly stating that opioid treatment for postsurgical pain is outside its scope.13


Although the CDC guideline recommends limiting opioid prescriptions for acute pain that is nonsurgical and nontraumatic, it does so on the basis of experts' clinical experience, rather than on scientific evidence-and the expert opinion cited ranges widely from three or fewer days to rarely more than seven.13 The expert opinions expressed in this guideline may have been erroneously applied as evidence for developing health care policy initiatives regarding acute pain management, including postoperative opioid use. Because of the lack of evidence supporting any particular practice for prescribing opioids for inpatient or at-home use following surgery, the APS guideline provides no recommendation for duration of postoperative opioid prescribing.


The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has prioritized the use of evidence-based practices for managing acute and chronic pain as a strategy for combating opioid misuse. On April 28, 2017, the CMS proposed new rules for pain management in the Hospital Inpatient Prospective Payment System for Federal Fiscal Year 2020; the proposed rules were open for public comment through June 13, 2017.16 The proposed rules would update the Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey measure, revising the three questions that address Communication About Pain During the Hospital Stay to eliminate any perceived financial pressure to overprescribe opioids. Two of the newly proposed questions focus on the following issues16:


* shared decision making


* discussion of treatment options, including opioid, nonopioid, and nonpharmacologic pain management strategies


* patient understanding of treatment options


* patient engagement in pain care



Analyses of the new Communication About Pain composite measure, which includes how often staff talked about pain and how often staff discussed how to treat pain while in the hospital, reveal that the measure has strong reliability and validity; however, pain management nurses are calling for evidence to support the proposed response options-never, sometimes, usually, or always-as measures of hospital processes and performance expectations. In the past, "always" has been the desired patient response for HCAHPS questions, but it is unclear how patient responses to these proposed measures will be interpreted going forward. At press time, the new rules had not yet been finalized.



The planning committee of the Federal Pain Research Strategy, an initiative of the Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee and the National Institutes of Health, Office of Pain Policy, developed an organizational and structural plan that fosters a federal research agenda seeking to improve our understanding and management of pain, including postoperative pain.31 The five key areas that provide the framework for identifying research priorities are as follows:


* prevention of acute and chronic pain


* acute pain and acute pain management


* the transition from acute to chronic pain


* chronic pain and chronic pain management


* disparities in pain and pain care



The five work groups of the Federal Pain Research Strategy planning committee completed their discussions and posted a draft of research priorities for public comment from May 25 through June 6, 2017. The Federal Pain Research Strategy was released in October 2017.19



The Joint Commission has approved revised pain assessment and management standards for its hospital accreditation program. The standards were released in July 201717 and will become effective January 1, 2018. Revisions will be included in the 2018 hospital accreditation manual. The standards stress the need to focus on evidence-based care. Nurses must be able to distinguish clinical practices supported by strong evidence from those with insufficient or weak evidence, as well as evidence-based recommendations from expert opinion.


Nurses are in a position to improve the quality of acute pain management by advocating for evidence-based strategies. Although many of the APS guideline recommendations are not new, some that are well supported by good quality evidence are still infrequently implemented in the clinical practice setting. For example, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) is seldom used for postoperative pain, though the guideline panel found moderate-quality evidence supporting the use of these small portable devices as an adjunct to other postoperative pain treatments.12, 32 The source for the evidence was a systematic review of more than 20 randomized trials that found that TENS use was associated with 26.5% less analgesic consumption than placebo.32 Before using TENS, nurses should review proper placement of electrodes, optimal treatment parameters, and patient education guidelines.


Organizational readiness. Assessing an organization's readiness to implement any or all of the APS guideline recommendations is a critical first step. For each recommendation, an interdisciplinary team of committed clinicians and organizational leaders must consider how the change will affect the organization's people, processes, resources, and systems and ask themselves the following questions:


* What steps or elements of the recommendations are currently in place?


* What are the institutional strengths for implementing the recommendations?


* Are there any institutional barriers or weaknesses to implementing the recommendations?



The team should outline strategies and actions needed to implement specific recommendations. Patient outcomes, quality metrics, and feedback mechanisms must be defined in order to measure the practice change. Targets for change completion and plans to measure changes in patient outcomes over time will ensure that the change is sustained.


Change often starts with clinical education. In 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a "Blueprint for Prescriber Education for Extended-Release and Long-Acting Opioid Analgesics" as part of a risk evaluation and mitigation strategy (REMS) for these drugs.33 The goal of the voluntary continuing education REMS was to reduce serious adverse outcomes as a result of inappropriate prescribing, misuse, and abuse of extended-release and long-acting opioid analgesics while maintaining access to opioid analgesics for patients with pain. A recent version of the blueprint represents a shift from a previous focus on risks and the use of opioids to a more holistic educational focus on acute and chronic pain management that includes pain assessment methods as well as use of nonpharmacologic interventions, nonopioid analgesics, immediate-release opioid analgesics, and extended-release and long-acting opioid analgesics. The FDA sought public comment on this version through July 10, 2017.33 At press time, proposed additions and changes to the REMS are with the FDA for review. The release date has not been announced, but the FDA has sent formal letters to all manufacturers of immediate-release opioid analgesics, requiring them to participate in the FDA opioid REMS once it is approved.



Optimal postoperative pain management requires evidence-based guidance from published guidelines and clinical experts, and must consider individual patient values and preferences. We encourage nurses to use the information provided by the expert interdisciplinary panel that developed the APS guideline on the management of postoperative pain to help their patients and health care institutions navigate changing standards and regulations. Nurses can advocate for their patients by promoting evidence-based practice, implementing the recommendations of the APS guideline panel, ensuring appropriate resources are available to safely translate this guideline into practice, and further developing the scientific basis for postoperative pain management clinical practices.



We encourage readers to share their feedback. Which APS guideline recommendations would you, could you, or did you implement in your clinical setting? What barriers to implementation were difficult or insurmountable? What new challenges to postoperative pain management were not addressed by these clinical practice guideline recommendations? Please e-mail your response to




1. Melzack R, Wall PD Pain mechanisms: a new theory Science 1965 150 3699 971-9 [Context Link]


2. McCaffery M Nursing management of the patient with pain 1972 Philadelphia Lippincott [Context Link]


3. International Association for the Study of Pain. Pain terms: a list with definitions and notes on usage. Recommended by the IASP Subcommittee on Taxonomy Pain 1979 6 3 249 [Context Link]


4. Loeser JD. Perspectives on pain. In: P. Turner, editor. Clinical pharmacy and therapeutics. London: Macmillan; 1980. [Context Link]


5. Acute Pain Management Guideline Panel. Acute pain management: operative or medical procedures and trauma. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; 1992 Feb. AHCPR clinical practice guidelines, No. 1.; [Context Link]


6. Campbell JN APS 1995 presidential address J Pain 1996 5 1 85-8 [Context Link]


7. Joint Commission Pain management: history of the Joint Commission pain standards. 2016. [Context Link]


8. Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems. HCAHPS fact sheet: CAHPS hospital survey. Baltimore, MD: Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services; 2017 Nov. [Context Link]


9. Joint Commission Safe use of opioids in hospitals Sentinel Event Alert 2012 49 1-5 [Context Link]


10. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The opioid epidemic: by the numbers. Washington, DC; 2016. [Context Link]


11. Joint Commission Clarification of the pain management standard. Jt Comm Perspect 2014;34(11):1. [Context Link]


12. Chou R, et al Management of postoperative pain: a clinical practice guideline from the American Pain Society, the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine, and the American Society of Anesthesiologists' Committee on Regional Anesthesia, Executive Committee, and Administrative Council J Pain 2016 17 2 131-57 [Context Link]


13. Dowell D, et al CDC guideline for prescribing opioids for chronic pain-United States, 2016 MMWR Recomm Rep 2016 65 1 1-49 [Context Link]


14. Baker DW Joint Commission statement on pain management. Oakbrook Terrace, IL: Joint Commission 2016 Apr 18. [Context Link]


15. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 42 CFR Parts 414, 416, 419, 482, 486, 488, and 495. Medicare program: hospital outpatient prospective payment and ambulatory surgical center payment systems and quality reporting programs; etc. [final rule with comment period and interim final rule with comment period]. Washington, DC: Federal Register, vol. 81, no. 219 / Monday, Nov 14. Rules and Regulations 2016 79562ff. [Context Link]


16. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. 42 CFR Parts 405, 412, 413, 414, 416, 486, 488, 489, and 495. Medicare program; hospital inpatient prospective payment systems for acute care hospitals, etc. Proposed rule. Washington, DC: Federal Register vol 82, #81 (Apr 28) 2017 19796 ff. [Context Link]


17. [no author.] Joint Commission enhances pain assessment and management requirements for accredited hospitals Jt Comm Perspect 2017 37 7 1-4 [Context Link]


18. Hirschfeld Davis J. Trump declares opioid crisis a 'health emergency' but requests no funds. New York Times 2017 Oct 26. [Context Link]


19. Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee. Federal pain research strategy overview, final report. Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health; 2017. [Context Link]


20. Cullen KA, et al Ambulatory surgery in the United States, 2006 Natl Health Stat Report 2009 11 1-25 [Context Link]


21. DeFrances CJ, et al 2006 National Hospital Discharge Survey Natl Health Stat Report 2008 5 1-20 [Context Link]


22. National Center for Health Statistics. Health, United States 2015: with special feature on racial and ethnic health disparities. Hyattsville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2016. [Context Link]


23. Apfelbaum JL, et al Postoperative pain experience: results from a national survey suggest postoperative pain continues to be undermanaged Anesth Analg 2003 97 2 534-40 [Context Link]


24. Kehlet H, et al Persistent postsurgical pain: risk factors and prevention Lancet 2006 367 9522 1618-25 [Context Link]


25. Committee on Advancing Pain Research, Care, and Education, Board on Health Sciences Policy, Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Relieving pain in America: a blueprint for transforming prevention, care, education, and research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2011. [Context Link]


26. Guyatt G, et al Grading strength of recommendations and quality of evidence in clinical guidelines: report from an American College of Chest Physicians task force Chest 2006 129 1 174-81 [Context Link]


27. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Methods guide for effectiveness and comparative effectiveness reviews. Rockville, MD; 2015 Feb 26. AHRQ Publication No. 10(14)-EHC063-EF. [Context Link]


28. Secrist ES, et al Pain management after outpatient anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials Am J Sports Med 2016 44 9 2435-47 [Context Link]


29. van den Bekerom MP, What is the evidence for rest, ice, compression, and elevation therapy in the treatment of ankle sprains in adults? J Athl Train 2012 47 4 435-43 [Context Link]


30. Gordon DB, et al Research gaps in practice guidelines for acute postoperative pain management in adults: findings from a review of the evidence for an American Pain Society clinical practice guideline J Pain 2016 17 2 158-66 [Context Link]


31. National Institutes of Health, Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee. Federal pain research strategy. n.d. [Context Link]


32. Bjordal JM, et al Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) can reduce postoperative analgesic consumption. A meta-analysis with assessment of optimal treatment parameters for postoperative pain Eur J Pain 2003 7 2 181-8 [Context Link]


33. Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration. Draft revisions to the Food and Drug Administration blueprint for prescriber education for extended-release and long-acting opioids; availability [Docket No. FDA-2017-D-2497]. Notice of availability; request for comments. Washington, DC: 82 FR 21818. Federal Register, vol. 82, no. 89. May 10 2017 21818-9. [Context Link]


For more than 70 continuing nursing education activities on pain management topics, go to