Comparison of Clinical Outcomes Following Head and Neck Surgery Among Patients Who Contract to Abstain From Alcohol vs Patients Who Abuse Alcohol

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Alcohol abuse is highly prevalent in the population of patients with head and neck cancer, and active abuse at the time of surgery results in poor postoperative outcomes.


To determine the association of alcohol abstinence with postoperative outcome in alcohol misusers undergoing major surgical procedures of the head and neck.

Design, Setting, and Participants

As a case-control study, from July 2013 to August 2015, outcomes were collected in patients at an academic tertiary referral center requiring free flap reconstruction who had undergone an abstinence contract (n = 15) and compared with those who were abusers of alcohol prior to the inception of the protocol (n = 30).


Our institution developed a clinical protocol in which patients who are misusers of alcohol are educated and voluntarily asked to sign an alcohol abstinence contract agreeing to be abstinent of alcohol a minimum of 7 days prior to surgery.

Main Outcomes and Measures

Rate of alcohol withdrawal, length of stay, return to operating room, and readmission within 30 days were determined from medical record review.


In the contracted group (15 patients), the mean age was 62 years, and 12 were male; in the control group (30 patients), the mean age was 58 years, and 26 were male. In both cohorts, no statistically significant difference was found between initial staging, surgery performed, and preoperative morbid conditions. The alcohol abstinence contracted group had an average of 14.8 days of abstinence prior to surgery. Abstinence was achieved at home for 11 patients, in a detoxification facility for 2 patients, and with preoperative admission for 2 patients. In direct comparisons between the groups, the rates of alcohol withdrawal (63% vs 0%; difference, 0.63; 95% CI, 0.33-0.85), delirium (73% vs 0%; difference, 0.73; 95% CI, 0.45-0.92), cellulitis (43% vs 7%; difference, 0.37; 95% CI, 0.04-0.64), and wound dehiscence (67% vs 13%; difference, 0.53; 95% CI, 0.22-0.79) were higher in the noncontracted group vs the contracted group. Furthermore, hospital stay (median 13 days vs 9 days; difference, 5 days; 95% CI, 3-7 days) and time lapse to starting adjuvant radiation therapy (median, 60.0 days vs 42.5 days; difference, 15 days; 95% CI, 5.0-25 days) were statistically and clinically significantly longer in the noncontracted group vs the contracted group.

Conclusions and Relevance

An alcohol abstinence program for surgically treated patients is safe and seems to be effective in reducing morbidity and improve outcomes.

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