Study: One in Five Opioid Prescriptions for Low Back Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

Doctors continue to prescribe opioids for low back pain, headaches and fibromyalgia – even though some medical guidelines recommend against their use for such common conditions, according to a large new study.

In an analysis of prescriptions filled for 12 million of its members between July 2013 and September 2014, pharmacy benefit manager Prime Therapeutics found that about one in five opioid prescriptions were written to treat low back pain.

"Our analysis found low back pain was the most common diagnosis among all members taking an opioid, even though medical guidelines suggest the risks are likely greater than the benefits for these individuals," said Catherine Starner, PharmD, lead health researcher for Prime Therapeutics.

Over 22% of those receiving long-acting opioids had been diagnosed with low back pain, nearly 5% had headache and about 2% were diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

In a position paper adopted last year, the American Academy of Neurology found there was “no substantial evidence” for long term use of opioids to treat low back pain, fibromyalgia and headache.

Collectively, the data suggest that opioids do not improve function in low back pain and therefore should be avoided. While I am an advocate of minimizing opioids to every extent possible, I also believe that absolutes can be damaging," said Beth Darnall, PhD, a pain psychologist, clinical associate professor at Stanford University and author of Less Pain, Fewer Pills.

“In select individual cases, opioids may be one part of an effective pain management plan.  Even then, patients should be monitored closely and opioids used at the lowest dose for the shortest amount of time possible.  The opioid studies are based on large samples and there are always outliers; we must find ways of minimizing risks, protecting patients, and still leaving room for the reality that the medications may be effective for a minority of individuals.”

Nearly 9% of Prime Therapeutics’ members were prescribed at least one opioid during the study period. On average, the cost for those taking short-acting opioids was $72 per member, compared to $907 per member taking only long-acting opioids.

The company said a clinical program that assesses the appropriateness of long-acting opioids could help improve safety and reduce costs. A screening program could also identify members with a significant number of opioid claims in a short period, or those with diagnosed conditions that may not benefit from prolonged opioid use.

"Identifying these members and helping them find the most appropriate pain treatment for their condition could help reduce safety concerns," said Starner.

Darnall says an education program would also help – one that includes non-drug treatments.

“To reduce opioid prescriptions, patients must be given access to effective alternatives,” Darnall said in an email to Pain News Network. “Additionally, by providing patients with education regarding the limitations of opioids and associated risks clinicians may engage patients in their own care and motivate them to seek and try alternatives.  Such alternatives include psycho-behavioral interventions, self-management programs, graded exercise programs, rehabilitation approaches, and the like.”

Prime Therapeutics manages pharmacy claims for health insurers, employers, and government programs including Medicare and Medicaid. It is collectively owned by 13 Blue Cross and Blue Shield Plans, subsidiaries or affiliates.