Few Pain Patients Become Long-Term Opioid Users

By Pat Anson, Editor

Less than two percent of patients with prescriptions for opioid pain medication become long-term opioid users, according to a large new study published online in the journal Pain.

Researchers at Indiana University studied a nationwide database of over 10 million patients who filed insurance claims for opioid prescriptions between 2004 and 2013. The study was designed to look at opioid use by patients with psychiatric and behavioral problems, but in the process uncovered data indicating that the overall risk of long term opioid use for six months or more was relatively rare for most patients.

“Of the 10,311,961 incident opioid recipients, only 1.7% received long-term opioids during follow-up,” wrote lead author Patrick Quinn, PhD, of Indiana University, Bloomington.

“The probability of transitioning from first fill to long-term opioids was 1.3% by 1.5 years after the first prescription fill, 2.1% by 3 years, 3.7% by 6 years, and 5.3% by 9 years. Fewer than half of long-term recipients met a stricter long-term definition (at least 183 days supply) during follow-up. The likelihood of receiving long-term opioids by this stricter definition was 1.0% by 3 years.”

Addiction treatment specialists and public health officials have long claimed that even short-term use of opioid medication quickly raises the risk of addiction and death.

“The bottom line here is that prescription opiates are as addictive as heroin. They’re dangerous drugs,” CDC Director Thomas Frieden recently told the Washington Post. “You take a few pills, you can be addicted for life. You take a few too many and you can die.”

The Indiana University researchers did find a “relatively modest” increase in long term opioid use by patients with depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions, and those taking psychoactive drugs. Rates of long-term use were 1.5 times higher for patients taking medications for attention-deficit disorder (ADHD); three times higher for those with previous substance use disorders other than opioids; and nearly nine times higher for those with previous opioid use disorders.

Ironically, the strongest risk for long-term opioid use was in patients being treated with buprenorphine (Suboxone), an addiction treatment drug.

“Patients with OUDs (opioid use disorders) and buprenorphine or naltrexone prescription fills were at substantially greater risk of transitioning to long-term opioids earlier in follow-up than were patients without these conditions or medications,” Quinn wrote.

The researchers also found that patients with a history of suicidal or self-injuring behavior were at greater risk of using prescription opioids long-term.

 “It is likely that patients with psychiatric problems are more likely to experience more severe pain symptoms or greater pain-related functional impairment, perhaps leading providers to prescribe more aggressively to address pain-related concerns,” Quinn said. “It is also possible that patients with comorbid pain and psychiatric conditions may be more likely to seek care repeatedly or from multiple treatment providers because of their greater symptom severity or perceived need for care, resulting in a higher rate of opioid receipt in aggregate.”

Quinn and his colleagues do not rule out opioid therapy for pain sufferers with psychiatric problems, but recommend that they be given mental health counseling “in conjunction with the use of long-term opioid therapy.”