Background and objective: To investigate the interactions of postoperative pain and endocrine stress response, three groups of 21 patients each with total knee arthroplasty were compared in a randomized, prospective design. For postoperative pain management, a three-in-one block, an epidural catheter analgesia or an intravenous patient-controlled analgesia was used.
Methods: After standardized balanced anaesthesia, the pain intensity was measured by a visual analogue scale (VAS). For detection of epinephrine, norepinephrine, antidiuretic hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol in the plasma, blood samples were taken at six time points before and up to 180 min after the start of pain therapy. In addition, systolic arterial pressure, heart rate, partial arterial oxygen saturation, nausea, vomiting and satisfaction of the patients were recorded.
Results: Within 15 min after the start of pain therapy, VAS in all groups was similarly reduced from >40 mm to a range <10 mm (P < 0.001). Initially, all endocrine stress variables exceeded the normal range. Epidural anaesthesia led to a significant decrease of epinephrine and norepinephrine concentrations, while an increase was observed in the group with patient-controlled analgesia, and the decrease in patients with the three-in-one block was less than in patients receiving epidural anaesthesia (P = 0.001). Differences in antidiuretic hormone, adrenocorticotropic hormone and cortisol were less pronounced. Systolic arterial pressure decreased significantly in all groups, particularly in patients with epidural anaesthesia. Partial arterial oxygen saturation and the incidence of nausea and vomiting were comparable. All patients were satisfied with the methods used.
Conclusions: All methods of pain management led to sufficient analgesia, but they were not accompanied by an adequate reduction in endocrine stress response. Thus, postoperative pain is only a secondary stressor and sufficient analgesia with subjective well-being does not prove a stress-free state. With regard to the reduction of sympathoadrenergic stress response, epidural anaesthesia is superior to the three-in-one block and patientcontrolled analgesia. Epidural anaesthesia is recommended particularly for high-risk patients with hypertension, coronary heart disease and diabetes mellitus. In these patients, the reduction of a ‘hidden’ endocrine stress response in addition to prevention of pain is of special interest.