Background: Pain becomes chronic in 22–67% of patients who undergo a thoracotomy. Thoracic epidural analgesia (TEA) has replaced less invasive methods to manage postoperative pain. We wanted to find out if active use of TEA, combined with extended pain management at home, reduces the incidence of chronic post-thoracotomy pain.
Methods: All consecutive thoracotomy patients during a 16-month period were included. On the ward, pain was measured daily by VAS during rest and coughing and the consumption of analgesics was registered. The patients were interviewed one week after discharge by telephone and by a questionnaire after 3 and 6 months to find out how much pain they had.
Results: A total of 114 patients were recruited. The data were analysed from 89 patients who had had TEA and 22 who had had other methods. TEA was effective in alleviating pain at rest and during coughing. In the TEA patients the incidence of chronic pain of at least moderate severity was 11% and 12% at 3 and 6 months, respectively. One week after discharge 92% of all patients needed daily pain medication.
Conclusions: TEA seems effective in controlling evoked postoperative pain, but technical problems occurred in 24% of the epidural catheters. The incidence of chronic pain was lower compared with previous studies where TEA was not used. The patients had significant pain and needed regular pain medication and instructions during the first week after discharge. Extended postoperative analgesia up to the first week at home is warranted.