Harvard Heart Letter

Ask the doctors: Can I have heart surgery while taking pain medication?

Q. I have had back problems for decades, and I have become quite dependent on oxycodone, regardless of whether my back is acting up or not. Now I am going to need heart surgery, but the surgeon I was sent to won't operate unless I can get off the pain pills. That seems cruel. What is he thinking?

A. Certainly if surgery were urgent, you could have a heart operation. But since your surgery is not urgent, it would be much better if you find a way to stop your oxycodone use first. You are going to need pain medications in the period after surgery, and when someone has addiction problems, the clinicians never know whether they are giving too much or not enough of these medications. In addition, surgeons want their handiwork to have lasting benefit, so showing that you can control your addiction problem helps assure your doctors that you will able to stick with your regimen after surgery—that is, take the medications you need to prevent recurrence. Even though this advice may seem hard-hearted, it is surely based upon some past experiences.

— Thomas Lee, M.D. and Richard Lee, M.D.
Co-Editors in Chief, Harvard Heart Letter

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