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The Relationship Between Movement-Evoked Versus Spontaneous Pain and Peak Expiratory Flow After Abdominal Hysterectomy

Gilron, Ian, MD, MSc, FRCPC; Tod, Debbie, RN; Goldstein, David H., MD, MSc, FRCPC; Parlow, Joel L., MD, MSc, FRCPC; Orr, Elizabeth, RN

doi: 10.1097/00000539-200212000-00043

The pathogenesis of postoperative lung dysfunction implies a role for movement-evoked pain (e.g., splinting/hypoventilation because of pain avoidance). However, interactions between evoked pain and respiratory physiology are poorly understood. Thus, we examined the relationship between evoked versus spontaneous pain and one index of pulmonary function. In 25 patients having undergone a hysterectomy, visual analog scale ratings (100 mm) for spontaneous pain (REST) and pain during sitting (SIT), forced expiration (BLOW), and coughing (COUGH) were measured together with peak expiratory flow (PEF) at eight time points during postoperative Days 1 and 2. Secondary outcome measures included oxygen saturation and oxygen requirements. Pain was significantly correlated with PEF for COUGH, SIT, BLOW, and REST at eight, seven, four, and two of the eight studied time points, respectively. Mean visual analog scale scores [se] for COUGH (26.1 mm [1.7]) and SIT (21.5 mm [1.5]) were greater (P < 0.05) than REST (10.5 mm [0.8]), and COUGH was greater (P < 0.05) than BLOW (16.8 mm [1.3]). All pain measures diminished (P < 0.05), and PEF reductions improved (P < 0.05) across the study period. We hypothesize that the consistent negative correlation of COUGH-evoked pain with PEF is, in part, caused by avoidance of coughing, which ultimately limits deep inspiration, lung reexpansion, and clearance of secretions.

Departments of Anesthesiology and Pharmacology & Toxicology, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada

Supported, in part, by PSI Foundation Grant no. 00–41 and Queen’s University Grant no. 383–861. Ian Gilron is supported by CIHR New Investigator Award.

July 31, 2002.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Ian Gilron, MD, MSc, FRCPC, Departments of Anesthesiology and Pharmacology & Toxicology, Queen’s University, 76 Stuart St., Kingston, Ontario, K7L 2V7, Canada. Address e-mail to

Approximately 10% of the population undergoes surgery each year, and most of these people experience postoperative pain (1). Despite a growing understanding of the basic science of pain, postoperative pain management is often inadequate (2) such that quality improvement and clinical research efforts must continue (3). Whereas the primary goal is to relieve suffering and improve quality of life after surgery, evidence suggests that improved postoperative pain management may also reduce serious morbidity and mortality (4). Physiological studies have quantified the contribution of postoperative pain to pulmonary dysfunction (5), and poorly controlled pain has been related to postoperative pulmonary (6), cardiac (7), and thromboembolic (8) complications. Given the pathogenic mechanisms of these complications (e.g., hypoventilation leading to atelectasis; decreased ambulation leading to venous stasis), it is imperative that adverse physiological sequelae related to movement-evoked pain be more effectively prevented.

Postoperative analgesic trials are increasingly including measures of pain evoked by movement and/or tactile stimulation (9,10). With this approach, treatment differences may further distinguish evoked from spontaneous pain. For example, Tverskoy et al. (11) found that doses of the opioid alfentanil, which completely suppress postoperative resting pain, are far less effective at reducing movement-evoked pain. In contrast to these findings, we have observed (12) that the novel 2-amino-3-hydroxy-5-methyl-4-isoxazole-proprionic acid/kainate receptor antagonist LY293558 produced minimal effects on spontaneous pain yet significantly reduced movement-evoked pain after surgery. Such distinctions may allow for future identification of specific analgesics or analgesic combinations that optimally reduce both spontaneous and evoked postoperative pain.

It is equally important to distinguish between evoked and spontaneous postoperative pain in terms of their deleterious physiological effects. For example, pain has long been thought to contribute to postoperative pulmonary dysfunction (13), and studies have evaluated the effects of different postoperative analgesics (14) and of different surgical approaches (15) on both pain and pulmonary function. However, the relative contributions of evoked versus spontaneous pain to pulmonary dysfunction have not been characterized. In patients undergoing abdominal hysterectomy, we have elected to use clinically relevant measures of pain evoked by ambulation (sitting up) and by cough. We have chosen peak expiratory flow (PEF) as a representative index of pulmonary function. PEF is a simple and rapid test of ventilatory capacity (16), which is effort-dependent and affected by airway obstruction and neuromuscular dysfunction (17). PEF is often used to track changes in ambulatory patients with obstructive lung disease (18) but has also been successful in distinguishing the pulmonary effects of different analgesic interventions after thoracic (19) and abdominal procedures (20). Thus, we have conducted a prospective study to examine the relationship between evoked versus spontaneous pain and peak expiratory flow after hysterectomy. The purpose of this study is to test the hypothesis that movement-evoked pain correlates with peak expiratory flow more closely than spontaneous pain in the postoperative period.

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Ethics approval was obtained from the Queen’s University Research Ethics Board. We were unable to find any previous studies that directly estimated the correlation of movement-evoked pain intensity with PEF. Therefore, for the purpose of sample size estimation, we assumed an expected correlation coefficient value (r) of 0.6 with a two-tailed α value of 0.05 and a β value of 0.2, resulting in a sample size of 25 (21). Thus, this was a prospective study of 25 consenting ASA physical status I or II female patients undergoing elective total abdominal hysterectomy through a low transverse incision. Surgery was started before 12 pm (i.e., first or second case of the day). Exclusion criteria included: (a) a body mass index larger than 30 kg/m2, (b) cardiopulmonary disease/dysfunction, (c) neuromuscular disease/dysfunction, (d) persistent pain before surgery, (e) daily intake, or intake within 48 h before surgery, of any analgesic, (f) history of alcohol or substance abuse, (g) history of a major psychiatric disorder, and (h) any hypersensitivity or intolerance to opioids.

Intraoperatively, patients received a balanced anesthetic with an IV induction (propofol or sodium thiopental), muscle relaxant, inhaled volatile anesthetic, and nitrous oxide at the discretion of the attending anesthesiologist. The only intraoperative analgesics given were fentanyl 2–5 μg/kg IV at the induction followed by morphine 0.1–0.2 mg/kg IV titrated from 30 min after the induction to the end of surgery. No local or regional anesthesia or any other analgesic drugs were used during surgery. Intraoperative prophylactic antiemetic therapy included droperidol 0.5–0.625 mg IV and ondansetron 4 mg IV given 30 min before the anticipated completion of surgery. After surgery, all study patients received patient-controlled analgesia (PCA) with morphine and could also receive non-opioid co-analgesics (e.g., nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drugs) at the discretion of the attending acute pain management physician. In the postanesthetic care unit, nurses titrated morphine 2 mg IV every 5 min as required until patients were able to self-administer morphine by PCA. PCA pump settings started at a bolus dose of 1 mg, lockout interval of 5 min (no background infusion), and were adjusted as required at the discretion of the attending acute pain management physician. On the surgical ward, patients were encouraged to use an incentive spirometer five to 10 times an hour while awake and also given an abdominal splinting pillow to facilitate coughing as required. A respiratory therapist evaluated each patient every 8 h after surgery and instituted oxygen therapy for a pulse oximeter saturation reading of <92%.

At each study time point, patients completed a series of pain ratings under various conditions. These study measures, assessed in the following order, included: 100-mm visual analog scale (VAS) pain intensity at rest (REST), during sitting up in a standardized fashion from the supine position (SIT), followed by a 120-s rest period, then at maximal forced expiration (BLOW) using a peak flowmeter (Vitalograph, Ennis, Ireland), followed by a 120-s rest period, and then during a cough (COUGH). To measure BLOW pain at each time point, three maximal forced expirations were performed, and of these, only the highest VAS score (BLOW pain) and PEF were recorded. Secondary outcome measures at each time point included a resting oxygen saturation by finger pulse oximeter (Onyx, Nonin Medical Inc, Plymouth, MN) and the presence of supplemental oxygen therapy. Before surgery on the morning of the operative day, patients were asked to complete baseline pain measures and to perform three maximal forced expirations. This provided baseline data and facilitated patient teaching for the study. Pain intensity and PEF measurements were recorded on the first and second postoperative days starting at 8 am and then every 4 h until 8 pm.

Temporal changes in spontaneous and evoked pain intensity and PEF were analyzed by simple regression analysis. For purposes of data presentation and analysis, all postoperative PEFs were expressed as a percentage of baseline. Differences between spontaneous and various evoked pain measures (i.e., SIT, BLOW, and COUGH) were analyzed by two-way (pain measure by time) repeated-measures analysis of variance (ANOVA). Any main effects of pain measure were explored further using analysis of simple main effects with Fisher’s protected least significant difference test. Post hoc tests, used after significant pain measure by time interactions, were performed using Newman-Keuls multiple comparisons. In a similar fashion, differences in pain scores between patients receiving supplemental oxygen and those not receiving oxygen were analyzed by two-way (oxygen treatment group by time) ANOVA. At each separate time point (i.e., 20, 24, 28, 32, 44, 48, 52, and 56 h after completion of surgery), VAS intensity scores of all 25 patients for each pain measure (i.e., REST, SIT, BLOW, and COUGH) were plotted against their corresponding PEFs on 32 separate plots. Pain scores were similarly plotted against their corresponding oxygen saturations for patients who had not received any supplemental oxygen therapy. Correlation analysis was performed using Pearson correlation coefficients to assess the relationship between each pain measure and PEF as well as the relationship between each pain measure and oxygen saturation at each time point. All statistical tests were considered significant if they met a threshold of P < 0.05.

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Thirty consecutive hysterectomy patients were considered for the study. Two patients were excluded because of chronic analgesic use, one was excluded because of chronic alcoholism, and two patients were withdrawn from the study after their planned low transverse incision was converted to a longitudinal midline incision. Thus, 25 patients completed the study. Mean (sd) age, weight, and height were 47.4 (9.1) yr, 72.3 (11.9) kg, and 160.8 (6.8) cm, respectively. Mean (sd) IV morphine consumption from the end of surgery to 8 pm on the second postoperative day was 67.3 (57.1) mg. Thirteen of the 25 study patients received a nonsteroidal antiinflammatory drug at some point during the perioperative period. For the entire study group, mean (sd) oxygen saturation across the first 2 postoperative days was 96.2% (2.1%). Nine of the 25 study patients received supplemental oxygen therapy at some point during the first 2 postoperative days. Figure 1 plots the temporal profiles of REST, SIT, BLOW, and COUGH pain as well as PEF across the first 2 postoperative days. Simple regression analysis demonstrated that all pain measures significantly diminished (P < 0.001), and PEF significantly improved (P < 0.001), across the duration of the study period. Two-way repeated-measures ANOVA resulted in a significant effect of pain measure (F = 5.28;P = 0.002) as well as a significant effect of time (F = 37.91;P < 0.001) with no significant pain-measure/time interaction (F = 1.051;P > 0.05). Fisher’s protected least significant difference test resulted in significant differences (Fig. 2) between REST and SIT pain (mean difference, 10.99;P = 0.007), REST and COUGH pain (mean difference, 15.67;P < 0.001), and BLOW and COUGH pain (mean difference, 9.39;P = 0.03). Mean VAS pain intensity (se) for REST, SIT, BLOW, and COUGH averaged over the first 2 postoperative days was 10.5 (0.8) mm, 21.5 (1.5) mm, 16.8 (1.3) mm, and 26.1 (1.7) mm, respectively (Fig. 2). Correlation analysis resulted in significant negative correlations between PEF and pain at all eight studied time points for COUGH pain, at seven time points for SIT pain, at four time points for BLOW pain, and at two time points for REST pain (Table 1). As an illustrative example, Figure 3 shows scatter plots of PEF against REST, SIT, BLOW, and COUGH pain at 20 h after completion of surgery. No significant correlations were observed between pain and oxygen saturation (data not shown). There were no differences in any of the pain measures on comparing patients receiving supplemental oxygen to those not receiving oxygen (data not shown).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Figure 2

Figure 2

Table 1

Table 1

Figure 3

Figure 3

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The above results confirm previous evidence that during the first two days after abdominal surgery spontaneous and evoked pain diminish (22) and postoperative reductions in pulmonary function improve (13). Furthermore, pain evoked by sitting up and by coughing is significantly more severe than pain at rest. Also, pain evoked by coughing is significantly more severe than pain evoked by maximal forced expiration. Finally, pain was significantly, and negatively, correlated with PEF most frequently for COUGH and SIT pain and least frequently for REST and BLOW pain.

Evidence suggests that mechanisms underlying evoked pain are different from those underlying pain at rest (23). Inflammatory mediators released in the periphery after tissue injury, such as bradykinin, neuropeptides, serotonin, and histamine, activate A-δ and C nociceptive fibers and continuously transduce pain signals resulting in spontaneous or stimulus-independent pain (24). However, in the setting of surgical tissue injury, several more complex events occur in the peripheral and central nervous systems, resulting in stimulus-evoked pain, which is characterized by allodynia (nociception after normally innocuous stimuli) and/or hyperalgesia (enhanced nociception after a graded noxious stimulus). In addition to directly activating pain fibers, several inflammatory mediators cause peripheral sensitization, which is an alteration in the response properties of peripheral nerves such that their threshold for activation is decreased, i.e., more pain sensitive (25). In the setting of peripheral sensitization, primary afferent nociceptors, normally only activated by high-intensity stimuli, are subsequently activated by lower intensity or even non-noxious stimuli to transmit pain. Centrally, transmission of noxious stimuli from peripheral nociceptors to the spinal cord through A-δ and C nerve fibers involves the synaptic release of neurotransmitters such as substance P and glutamate onto spinal cord neurons (26). In addition to propagating pain signals to the brain, these neurotransmitters also contribute to the development of spinal sensitization, which is an alteration in the response properties of dorsal horn neurons characterized by decreased firing thresholds, as well as temporal and spatial summation and resulting in primary (at site of injury) and secondary (adjacent to site of injury) mechanical hyperalgesia (27,28). Another important feature of central sensitization is an alteration in sensory processing such that pain is pathologically transmitted via A-β fibers that normally only transmit touch (29). The consequences of all these central changes include mechanical hyperalgesia (both primary and secondary) and allodynia, although their inciting mechanisms are different from those operant in peripheral sensitization.

There are several reasons why pain evoked by sitting and by coughing are more intense than pain at rest. Possible explanations include a preferential effect of postoperatively used opioids on mechanisms of spontaneous pain (11) and/or the recruitment of more nociceptive sensory inputs during movement. Regarding the latter explanation, electrophysiological studies from a rat model of postsurgical pain demonstrate that surgical incision produces sensitization of peripheral mechanosensitive afferent nerve fibers (30) as well as sensitization of spinal dorsal horn wide dynamic range neurons centrally (31). In the present study, muscle contraction and movement of tissues (e.g., skin and peritoneum) that were directly injured during surgery (in the case of primary hyperalgesia), as well as adjacent tissues (in the case of secondary hyperalgesia), would lead to a greater nociceptive barrage compared with that which occurs at rest. Subsequently, movement-evoked pain can lead to kinesophobia (32), which, in the postoperative setting, hinders progressive ambulation and recovery of lung function.

The observed negative correlations between pain and PEF builds on direct evidence that pain adversely affects pulmonary function (5). Although the frequency of coughing was not measured in this study, we hypothesize that the consistent, significant correlation of cough-evoked pain with a reduction in PEF is, in part, due to patient avoidance of coughing, which ultimately limits deep inspiration, lung reexpansion, and clearance of secretions (33). The results of this study must be interpreted in context of the limitations of PEF as a test of lung function. It should be noted that PEF measures active expiration, which does not play a role in normal breathing (17). Therefore, future studies using other surrogates of pulmonary function (e.g., functional residual capacity) would provide a more detailed and physiologically relevant characterization of the effect of evoked pain on postoperative lung function, and larger sample sizes would be required to correlate evoked versus spontaneous pain with major outcomes such as atelectasis or pneumonia. A meta-analysis of epidural analgesia trials suggests that epidural analgesia may reduce postoperative morbidity but that measures of pulmonary function, such as forced expiratory volume in one second of expiration, forced vital capacity, and PEF, do not necessarily predict adverse respiratory outcomes (34). However, data from this study provide the first evidence that movement-evoked postoperative pain plays a particularly important role in postoperative lung dysfunction and requires further attention. Future research should be directed, first, at understanding further the unique neurophysiology of postoperative evoked pain and, second, at characterizing in more detail the physiological implications of evoked pain as they pertain to relevant postoperative respiratory, cardiac, and thromboembolic complications.

The authors wish to thank Allan Bell for his technical support and Drs Audun Stubhaug, Joel Katz, and Allison Froese for thoughtful comments made on previous versions of this manuscript.

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