It is speculated that opioid-free anesthesia may provide adequate pain control while reducing postoperative opioid consumption. However, there is currently no evidence to support the speculation. The authors hypothesized that opioid-free balanced anesthetic with dexmedetomidine reduces postoperative opioid-related adverse events compared with balanced anesthetic with remifentanil.


Patients were randomized to receive a standard balanced anesthetic with either intraoperative remifentanil plus morphine (remifentanil group) or dexmedetomidine (opioid-free group). All patients received intraoperative propofol, desflurane, dexamethasone, lidocaine infusion, ketamine infusion, neuromuscular blockade, and postoperative lidocaine infusion, paracetamol, nefopam, and patient-controlled morphine. The primary outcome was a composite of postoperative opioid-related adverse events (hypoxemia, ileus, or cognitive dysfunction) within the first 48 h after extubation. The main secondary outcomes were episodes of postoperative pain, opioid consumption, and postoperative nausea and vomiting.


The study was stopped prematurely because of five cases of severe bradycardia in the dexmedetomidine group. The primary composite outcome occurred in 122 of 156 (78%) dexmedetomidine group patients compared with 105 of 156 (67%) in the remifentanil group (relative risk, 1.16; 95% CI, 1.01 to 1.33; P = 0.031). Hypoxemia occurred 110 of 152 (72%) of dexmedetomidine group and 94 of 155 (61%) of remifentanil group patients (relative risk, 1.19; 95% CI, 1.02 to 1.40; P = 0.030). There were no differences in ileus or cognitive dysfunction. Cumulative 0 to 48 h postoperative morphine consumption (11 mg [5 to 21] versus 6 mg [0 to 17]) and postoperative nausea and vomiting (58 of 157 [37%] versus 37 of 157 [24%]; relative risk, 0.64; 95% CI, 0.45 to 0.90) were both less in the dexmedetomidine group, whereas measures of analgesia were similar in both groups. Dexmedetomidine patients had more delayed extubation and prolonged postanesthesia care unit stay.


This trial refuted the hypothesis that balanced opioid-free anesthesia with dexmedetomidine, compared with remifentanil, would result in fewer postoperative opioid-related adverse events. Conversely, it did result in a greater incidence of serious adverse events, especially hypoxemia and bradycardia.

Editor’s Perspective
What We Already Know about This Topic
  • It is hoped but not proven that opioid-free anesthesia provides adequate postoperative analgesia and reduced opioid-related side effects
  • Dexmedetomidine is sometimes used to replace opioids in balanced opioid-free anesthetics
What This Article Tells Us That Is New
  • In a randomized, blinded, multicenter trial, study patients undergoing noncardiac surgery received a standard anesthetic featuring lidocaine and ketamine, plus either remifentanil or an alternative anesthetic where dexmedetomidine was substituted for remifentanil
  • The primary outcome, composed of postoperative hypoxemia, ileus, and cognitive dysfunction, was more common among patients receiving opioid-free anesthesia
  • Importantly, opioid-free anesthesia with dexmedetomidine was associated with severe bradycardia, and the study was terminated early for that reason