Doctors using new non-opioid drug to help prevent addiction

Updated: Oct. 23, 2019 at 6:17 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - In the fight against the opioid crisis, more doctors are starting to use a non-opioid alternative to help patients manage their pain. It’s called Exparel, a numbing agent, that helps patients get through the first few days after surgery with less pain.

Experts say it will take various approaches to stop the opioid crisis, and doctors say Exparel is considered one of them. The manufacturer, Pacira BioSciences, Inc., reports more than 5 million patients have been treated with Exparel since it was FDA approved.

Patient Tracy Belongia says she didn’t feel any pain for two full days after both of her shoulder surgeries because her surgeon used Exparel, a new numbing agent injected at the surgery site. That helped her avoid having to take prescription opioid pain relievers.

“The same day, we took a three-hour trip and I felt nothing,” said Belongia. “I was numb from my shoulder all the way down to the tips of my fingers.”

More doctors are turning to Exparel to help combat the opioid addiction epidemic. That addiction can often progress to street drugs, such as heroin and fentanyl. Data from the Virginia Department of Health shows overdose deaths in Virginia from prescription opioids, heroin or fentanyl have risen from 516 in 2007 to 1,215 in 2018.

“Most of the time folks get started on these medications around the time of surgery. A disturbingly high amount of them are still on opioids three and six months after surgery,” Dr. Todd Stevens, an anesthesiologist with Tuckahoe Orthopedics, said.

Doctors say Exparel works like the Novacaine shot patients get to numb the mouth before a dental procedure. But Exparel is injected to site where you’re having surgery, such as your shoulder or knee, and can keep that area numb up to three full days, helping patients avoid taking pain killers.

Once the numbness wears off, doctors say patients can often take over the counter Tylenol or Advil, or only need a prescription opioid for a few days.

“They’ll come back a week later and say, ‘I barely had to take any pain medicine.’ So, we’ve had great success with that,” Dr. Paul Caldwell, an orthopedic surgeon with Tuckahoe Orthopedics, said.

It’s a huge relief to doctors concerned about the opioid crisis.

“Anything we can do to lessen the burden with the patient and lessen the risk is very important to us as doctors,” said Caldwell.

“Opioids should really be the last resort for breakthrough pain, not the front line,” Stevens said.

Not having to take any opioids gave Belongia peace of mind.

“Addiction runs in my family,” she said. “I don’t want anything to do with any pills, so it helped a lot.”

Not all patients have the same results, so ask your doctor if Exparel is right for you. Doctors say some patients have minimal side effects, such as nausea, fever or constipation.

Exparel costs about $300 per dose, and some patients require multiple doses. Only some insurance companies cover it, so check with your insurer.

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