According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 841,000 Americans have died from overdoses since 1999. In 2019 alone, 49,860 people died from opioid-related overdoses — 70.6 percent of all drug overdose deaths. This was before COVID-19, which almost certainly accelerated drug-related suicide and death, although no data is available yet.
The opioid epidemic is rightly the focus of Washington policymakers, Congressional and state legislation, and local public health programs across the country. But the death toll continues to rise and too many lives continue to be cut short.
As a neurosurgeon, I pay attention to these things. Take spinal fusions, for example, which are necessary surgeries but far from perfect. All too often, a spinal fusion is the gateway to opioid exposure. Responsible postoperative pain management allows patients to heal and participate in necessary physical and occupational therapy. Opioids have long been the mainstay of therapy for postoperative pain, but admittedly for a lack of better options. Our goal is to facilitate patient recovery so they can enjoy the quality of life they deserve.
Currently, if patients have persistent chronic back or leg pain after a successful fusion, they may become a candidate for neuromodulation therapy, but this typically occurs several years after the fusion and years of opioid drug use. Fortunately, the medical community and private companies are innovating to meet the need for non-narcotic pain management therapies with earlier intervention.
For example, I’m a co-investigator for a first-in-human study for SynerFuse, a Minnesota-based device company trying to integrate and co-localize existing spinal fusion with neuromodulation to treat post-surgical and persistent chronic low back pain. If the SynerFuse procedure proves effective for patient pain, as early indications suggest, we may have an opioid-sparing pain management therapy that will save the healthcare system billions of dollars over time and provide better pain management outcomes for both patients and physicians .
With more than 500,000 spinal fusion procedures performed in the United States each year, it is more important than ever to promote any innovative technology that would allow us to spare our patients exposure to opioids. Companies like Synerfuse have made saving opioids, reducing pain and facilitating safe and effective patient recovery their primary goals.
Governments (including Congress) can and should continue to seek legislation to address our country’s opioid crisis. Pain therapists should continue to offer responsible solutions to patients suffering from chronic pain. Surgeons should do their best to provide access to all possible modalities to save patients from the opioid crisis while facilitating necessary surgeries.
Together we should support private companies like SynerFuse. Their innovative solutions hold promise for the future of non-narcotic pain management for spine surgeons and for pain management physicians and the patients they serve. As the number of spinal fusions increases year after year, these innovations would weigh heavily on the opioid crisis.