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Surgeons Are Ditching Opioids for Ibuprofen and Novocain in the OR

  • Doctors using Novocain and nerve blockers for major surgeries
  • Chipping away at millions of painkiller scripts to end scourge

Amber McCanna’s hip replacement in 2016 was her sixth surgery in 10 years. It was also the start of a life without opioids.

McCanna, 37, spent years hooked on powerful daily doses of opioids prescribed by her doctors for chronic joint pain. But when she had her most recent operation, it was with the help of an approach that minimizes the use of the highly addictive painkillers that have riven communities and ruined lives across the U.S.

“I haven’t had any narcotics since then,” the mother of three said. “I’ll never allow myself to be dependent on opioids again.”

McCanna is at the forefront of a new movement in U.S. medicine to fight drug dependency. Despite malpractice lawsuits costing millions of dollars, dozens of physician convictions by the Drug Enforcement Administration for criminal misuse of painkillers and 33,000 overdoses in 2015, doctors are still writing hundreds of millions of opioid prescriptions every year. Now, some surgeons and anesthesiologists are trying to squeeze opioids out of the operating room.

Doctors don’t have the luxury of time to wait for a new generation of opioid-free painkillers that companies are racing to develop. So they’re turning to long-established drugs similar to Novocain, a favorite of dentists, to perform procedures using an approach not unlike the epidurals women often receive during childbirth. The difference is that anesthesiologists target specific joints, such as the shoulder, knee or hip. They’re also increasingly recommending alternatives such as massage and meditation to supplement drugs for pain control.

“Opioids are being shunned,” said Lynn Webster, an anesthesiologist and vice president at PRA Health Sciences Inc., a company...