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IMPORTANCE: The optimal analgesic technique following open abdominal surgery within an enhanced recovery protocol remains controversial. Thoracic epidural is often recommended; however, its role is increasingly being challenged and alternative techniques are being suggested as suitable replacements.
OBJECTIVE: To determine by meta-analysis whether epidurals are superior to alternative analgesic techniques following open abdominal surgery within an enhanced recovery setting in terms of postoperative morbidity and other markers of recovery.
DATA SOURCES: A literature search was performed of EMBASE, Medline, PubMed, and the Cochrane databases from 1966 through May 2013.
STUDY SELECTION: All randomized clinical trials comparing epidurals with an alternative analgesic technique following open abdominal surgery within an enhanced recovery protocol were included.
DATA EXTRACTION AND SYNTHESIS: All studies were assessed by 2 independent reviewers. Study quality was assessed using the Cochrane bias assessment tool and the Jadad and Chalmers modified bias risk assessment tools. Dichotomous data were analyzed by random or fixed-effects odds ratios. Qualitative analysis was performed where appropriate.
RESULTS: Seven trials with a total of 378 patients were identified. No significant difference in complication rate was detected between epidurals and alternative analgesic methods (odds ratio, 1.14; 95% CI, 0.49-2.64; P = .76). Subgroup analysis showed fewer complications in the patient-controlled analgesia group compared with epidural analgesia (odds ratio, 1.97; 95% CI, 1.10-3.53; P = .02). Following qualitative assessment, epidural analgesia was associated with faster return of gut function and reduced pain scores; however, no difference was observed in length of stay.
CONCLUSIONS AND RELEVANCE: Epidurals may be associated with superior pain control but this does not translate into improved recovery or reduced morbidity when compared with alternative analgesic techniques when used within an enhanced recovery protocol.
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