Age Is Associated With Pain Experience and Opioid Use After Head and Neck Free Flap Reconstruction

Eleni M. Rettig, Jeffrey R. Janus, Eric J. Moore, Daniel L. Price, Amy E. Glasgow, John P. Marinelli, Elizabeth B. Habermann, Kathryn M. Van Abel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Objectives: To describe pain experience and opioid use after major head and neck reconstructive surgery. Study Design: Retrospective cohort study. Methods: Patients undergoing major head and neck surgery with microvascular free tissue transfer (free flaps) at a tertiary academic center were included. Pain scores (0–10) and demographic and clinical data were ascertained from medical records. Discharge opioid prescriptions and refills obtained within 30 days were recorded. Patient characteristics were compared with pain scores using nonparametric rank-sum tests and with likelihood of refill using logistic regression models to calculate adjusted odds ratios (aORs) with 95% confidence intervals (CIs). Results: The study population comprised 445 patients. Median age was 60 years (interquartile range 50–68). Most patients had cancer (N = 350, 78%). The majority of free flaps were fibula (N = 153, 34%) or radial forearm (N = 159, 36%). Older patients reported significantly lower pain scores, whereas patients with opioid tolerance, anxiety, current smokers, and those undergoing larger volume resections or boney free flaps reported significantly higher pain scores. One-quarter (N = 115, 26%) of patients obtained opioid refills. Patients aged ≥ 60 years had one-half the odds of obtaining a refill compared with patients aged < 60 years (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] = 0.52, 95% confidence interval [CI] = 0.33–0.84), whereas surgical defect volume ≥ 100 cm3 (aOR = 1.92, 95% CI = 1.21–3.07) and higher pain score (aOR = 1.19, 95% CI = 1.07–1.32 per 1 point increase) increased the odds of refill. Conclusion: Continued opioid use after discharge is common among patients undergoing major head and neck reconstruction, particularly for younger patients and after more extensive surgery. Older patients reported lower pain intensity and were less likely to obtain opioid refills, highlighting the wisdom of judicious opioid use for this vulnerable population. Level of Evidence: IV Laryngoscope, 130: E469–E478, 2020.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)E469-E478
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 1 2020


  • Head and neck
  • free flap
  • head and neck cancer
  • microvascular surgery
  • opioids
  • pain

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology


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