Patient controlled opioid analgesia versus non-patient controlled opioid analgesia for controlling postoperative pain

Patients may control pain after surgery by self administration of analgesics (pain killers) using devices designed for this purpose (patient controlled analgesia or PCA). PCA involves self administration (by pushing a button) of small doses of opioids (such as morphine) intravenously by means of a programmable pump. Previous studies have shown that often patients prefer PCA to traditional methods of pain management, such as a nurse administering an analgesic upon a patient's request. This review demonstrated moderate to low quality evidence that PCA provided slightly better pain control and increased patient satisfaction when compared with non-patient controlled methods. Patients tended to use slightly higher doses of medication with PCA and suffered a higher occurrence of itching, but otherwise side effects were similar between groups.

Authors' conclusions: 

Since the last version of this review, we have found new studies providing additional information. We reanalyzed the data but the results did not substantially alter any of our previously published conclusions. This review provides moderate to low quality evidence that PCA is an efficacious alternative to non-patient controlled systemic analgesia for postoperative pain control.

Read the full abstract...

This is an updated version of the original Cochrane review published in Issue 4, 2006. Patients may control postoperative pain by self administration of intravenous opioids using devices designed for this purpose (patient controlled analgesia or PCA). A 1992 meta-analysis by Ballantyne et al found a strong patient preference for PCA over non-patient controlled analgesia, but disclosed no differences in analgesic consumption or length of postoperative hospital stay. Although Ballantyne's meta-analysis found that PCA did have a small but statistically significant benefit upon pain intensity, a 2001 review by Walder et al did not find statistically significant differences in pain intensity or pain relief between PCA and groups treated with non-patient controlled analgesia.


To evaluate the efficacy and safety of patient controlled intravenous opioid analgesia (termed PCA in this review) versus non-patient controlled opioid analgesia of as-needed opioid analgesia for postoperative pain relief.

Search strategy: 

We ran the search for the previous review in November 2004. For this update, we searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL 2014, Issue 12), MEDLINE (1966 to 28 January 2015), and EMBASE (1980 to 28 January 2015) for randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in any language, and reference lists of reviews and retrieved articles.

Selection criteria: 

We selected RCTs that assessed pain intensity as a primary or secondary outcome. These studies compared PCA without a continuous background infusion with non-patient controlled opioid analgesic regimens. We excluded studies that explicitly stated they involved patients with chronic pain.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted data, which included demographic variables, type of surgery, interventions, efficacy, and adverse events. We graded each included study for methodological quality by assessing risk of bias and employed the GRADE approach to assess the overall quality of the evidence. We performed meta-analysis of outcomes that included pain intensity assessed by a 0 to 100 visual analog scale (VAS), opioid consumption, patient satisfaction, length of stay, and adverse events.

Main results: 

Forty-nine studies with 1725 participants receiving PCA and 1687 participants assigned to a control group met the inclusion criteria. The original review included 55 studies with 2023 patients receiving PCA and 1838 patients assigned to a control group. There were fewer included studies in our updated review due to the revised exclusion criteria. For the primary outcome, participants receiving PCA had lower VAS pain intensity scores versus non-patient controlled analgesia over most time intervals, e.g., scores over 0 to 24 hours were nine points lower (95% confidence interval (CI) -13 to -5, moderate quality evidence) and over 0 to 48 hours were 10 points lower (95% CI -12 to -7, low quality evidence). Among the secondary outcomes, participants were more satisfied with PCA (81% versus 61%, P value = 0.002) and consumed higher amounts of opioids than controls (0 to 24 hours, 7 mg more of intravenous morphine equivalents, 95% CI 1 mg to 13 mg). Those receiving PCA had a higher incidence of pruritus (15% versus 8%, P value = 0.01) but had a similar incidence of other adverse events. There was no difference in the length of hospital stay.