Spring 2019

Putting pain in its place

U researchers explore whether nerve block medication could improve the orthopaedic surgery experience and reduce the need for opioids

There’s an unavoidable truth when it comes to shoulder surgeries, says Alicia Harrison, M.D.: “They hurt.”

Postoperative pain can range from uncomfortable to a near-emergency, Harrison says, with some patients actually going to the ER in the days following their surgery to find relief. That’s not the norm, she says, but it underscores the importance of finding pain relief solutions.


Harrison, an assistant professor in the Medical School’s Department of Orthopaedic Surgery and a University of Minnesota Health orthopaedic surgeon, is studying whether a different type of medication used during shoulder surgery could better control patients’ pain and reduce their need for potentially addictive painkillers afterward.

The medicine is a type of nerve block called liposomal bupivacaine. It’s similar to the numbing drugs used by dentists, but it lasts longer—sometimes up to 72 hours after surgery. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the drug for use in shoulder surgeries in 2018. Harrison and her colleagues in the Department of Anesthesiology are using it in painful procedures like rotator cuff repairs—with encouraging results.

“Patients appear to be more comfortable after surgery, and the medicine wears off slowly, which gives them a chance to manage their pain and rely less on other medications like opioids,” she says. “We’re prescribing significantly less pain medication, and patients are saying their pain is controlled.”

While feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, Harrison says the ongoing study will provide scientific evidence of patients’ experience with this medication—and show whether it can help curb opioid use and the addiction that can follow.

“There needs to be more research on the use of this medication and others to decrease opioid use,” she says. “Controlling patients’ pain is so important, and we want to find ways to help them have a better surgery experience.”