Ibuprofen appears to be an effective and safer pain reliever than morphine in children undergoing tonsillectomies, according to a recent study.

Although the two medications, administered with acetaminophen, treated pain about equally, morphine showed a greater risk for oxygen desaturation the night after surgery.

“Given the unpredictable posttonsillectomy respiratory response to opioids (codeine, morphine, and hydrocodone) and the analgesic effectiveness of ibuprofen, perhaps the time has come to question the postoperative use of all opioids in this population,” wrote Lauren Kelly, Ph.D., of Western University in London, Ontario, and her associates. The study was published online Jan. 26 ( Pediatrics 2014 Jan. 26 [doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-1906].

The researchers randomized 91 children aged 1-10 years to acetaminophen (10-15 mg/kg per dose every 4 hours) with either an age appropriate dose of 0.2-0.5 mg/kg oral morphine every 4 hours or 10 mg/kg of oral ibuprofen every 6 hours after the children underwent a tonsillectomy with or without an adenoidectomy to treat sleep disordered breathing. The study ran from September 2012 to January 2014.

Parents put pulse oximeters on their children the nights before and after surgery to monitor oxygen saturation and apnea events.

The first evening after the surgery, 68% of children receiving ibuprofen showed improvement in oxygen desaturations, compared with 14% of children receiving morphine. The children receiving ibuprofen experienced an average 1.79 fewer desaturation events per hour, compared to an average 11.17 more desaturation events per hour in the morphine group.

No differences in average postsurgical oxygen saturation, pain relieving effectiveness, tonsillar bleeding or drug adverse events were identified.

“The results of this study support effective posttonsillectomy analgesia in children by using ibuprofen in combination with acetaminophen,” Dr. Kelly and her team wrote.

The Canadian Institutes for Health Research Drug Safety and Effectiveness Network funded the study. The authors reported no relevant financial disclosures.