We performed meta-analyses of randomized, control trials to assess the effects of seven analgesic therapies on postoperative pulmonary function after a variety of procedures: epidural opioid, epidural local anesthetic, epidural opioid with local anesthetic, thoracic versus lumbar epidural opioid, intercostal nerve block, wound infiltration with local anesthetic, and intrapleural local anesthetic. Measures of forced expiratory volume in 1 s (FEV1), forced vital capacity (FVC), vital capacity (VC), peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR), PaO2, and incidence of atelectasis, pulmonary infection, and pulmonary complications overall were analyzed. Compared with systemic opioids, epidural opioids decreased the incidence of atelectasis (risk ratio [RR] 0.53, 95% confidence interval [CI] 0.33-0.85) and had a weak tendency to reduce the incidence of pulmonary infections (RR 0.53, 95% CI 0.18-1.53) and pulmonary complications overall (RR 0.51, 95% CI 0.20-1.33). Epidural local anesthetics increased PaO2 (difference 4.56 mm Hg, 95% CI 0.058-9.075) and decreased the incidence of pulmonary infections (RR 0.36, 95% CI 0.21-0.65) and pulmonary complications overall (RR 0.58, 95% CI 0.42-0.80) compared with systemic opioids. Intercostal nerve blockade tends to improve pulmonary outcome measures (incidence of atelectasis: RR 0.65, 95% CI 0.27-1.57, incidence of pulmonary complications overall: RR 0.47, 95% CI 0.18-1.22), but these differences did not achieve statistical significance. There were no clinically or statistically significant differences in the surrogate measures of pulmonary function (FEV1, FVC, and PEFR). These analyses support the utility of epidural analgesia for reducing postoperative pulmonary morbidity but do not support the use of surrogate measures of pulmonary outcome as predictors or determinants of pulmonary morbidity in postoperative patients.
Implications: When individual trials are unable to produce significant results, it is often because of insufficient patient numbers. It may be impossible for a single institution to study enough patients. Meta-analysis is a useful tool for combining the data from multiple trials to increase the patient numbers. These meta-analyses confirm that postoperative epidural pain control can significantly decrease the incidence of pulmonary morbidity.