Southern States Identified as Opioid Hotspots

By Pat Anson, Editor

If you suffer a sprained ankle, you’re 14 times more likely to get opioid pain medication at a hospital emergency room in Arkansas than one in North Dakota. That’s one of the unusual findings uncovered by researchers at Penn Medicine, who found a wide variability between states in opioid prescribing for a relatively minor injury.

Researchers analyzed private insurance claims for over 30,000 patients who visited hospital ERs in the U.S. for an ankle sprain from 2011-2015.

Nationwide, about 25% of the patients received an opioid prescription, with the chances of getting an opioid in Arkansas (40%) much better than in North Dakota (2.8%). The states with the highest prescribing rates were in the South and Southeast; while the lowest prescribing states were in the upper Midwest and Northeast.  





"Although opioids are not - and should not - be the first-line treatment for an ankle sprain, our study shows that opioid prescribing for these minor injuries is still common and far too variable," said M. Kit Delgado, MD, an assistant professor of Emergency Medicine and Epidemiology at Penn, who was lead author of the study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

"Given that we cannot explain this variation after adjusting for differences in patient characteristics, this study highlights opportunities to reduce the number of people exposed to prescription opioids for the first time and also to reduce the exposure to riskier high-intensity prescriptions.”

Nearly two-thirds of the opioid prescriptions were for hydrocodone – a potent painkiller that was reclassified as a Schedule II controlled substance in 2014 to make it harder to obtain.

Most patients received only a 3-day supply of opioids for their ankle sprains, although 5% were given more than 30 tablets. Less than 1% of the patients were still getting opioid prescriptions 30 days after the initial one.  

The study period preceded the release of the CDC’s opioid guidelines and came before many states enacted laws that limit the supply of opioids for acute pain. Some health experts are calling for more specific guidelines for ankle sprains and other health conditions.

"There is a clear need for further impactful guidelines similar to the CDC guidelines that outline more specific opioid and non-opioid prescribing by diagnosis," said senior author Jeanmarie Perrone, MD, a professor of Emergency Medicine and director of Medical Toxicology at Penn Medicine.

"Medical, surgical, and subspecialty societies should convene to propose best practices similar to the popular 'Choosing Wisely' campaign, acknowledging that pain management for most diagnoses can be accomplished with non-opioids. And certainly, ankle sprains are a model example."

Alabama District Leads Nation in Opioid Prescribing

A recent study published in the American Journal of Public Health also found high opioid prescribing rates in the South, Appalachia and rural West.  Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health focused on opioid prescribing in congressional districts, rather than the state or county level.

"It is important for public health research to focus on geographical units such as congressional districts as it allows for elected representatives to be more informed about important issues such as the opioid epidemic. Because a congressional district has a named elected representative, unlike say a county, it brings a certain degree of political accountability when it comes to discussing the opioid epidemic," said S. V. Subramanian, professor of population health and geography.

The study found that Alabama's Fourth Congressional District had 166 opioid prescriptions per 100 people, the highest rate of any district in the nation. Congressional districts in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Virginia, and Oklahoma rounded out the top ten areas with the highest prescribing rates. Other high prescribing rates were found in districts in eastern Arizona, Nevada, northern California, rural Oregon, and rural Washington.

The Republican congressman who represents Alabama’s 4th District said the opioid crisis is worse in rural areas because there are fewer jobs and opportunities.

“I think this crisis, particularly in rural America, corresponds directly to President Trump’s popularity in my district,” Rep. Robert Aderholt said in a statement. “People here have felt left behind and have seen their jobs and opportunities disappear. Due to the epidemic of depression, some people have turned to prescription drugs to dull the pain.  However, I believe that President Trump’s renewed focus on these areas and increasing jobs has resonated here strongly.”

Harvard researchers say the lowest opioid prescribing rates were concentrated in congressional districts in urban areas, including Washington, DC, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.