Long-Term Opioid Use Rare After Wisdom Teeth Removed

By Pat Anson, Editor

Anti-opioid activists have long claimed that thousands of young people have become addicted to opioid pain medication after having their wisdom teeth removed.

“Would you give your child heroin to remove a wisdom tooth?” is how a provocative 2016 anti-opioid billboard in New York City’s Times Square put it.

But a large new study published in JAMA found that the risk of long-term opioid use after wisdom tooth removal is relatively rare – although still a cause for concern.

The study of over 70,000 teens and young adults found that only 1.3% were still being prescribed opioids months after their initial prescription by a dentist. The risk of long-term use was nearly 3 times higher for young people prescribed opioids than for those who were not (0.5%).

Although the overall risk of long-term use is small, researchers say the sheer number of wisdom tooth removals warrants caution when prescribing opioids.

"Wisdom tooth extraction is performed 3.5 million times a year in the United States, and many dentists routinely prescribe opioids in case patients need it for post-procedure pain," said lead author Calista Harbaugh, MD, a research fellow and surgical resident at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation.

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"Until now, we haven't had data on the long-term risks of opioid use after wisdom tooth extraction. We now see that a sizable number go on to fill opioid prescriptions long after we would expect they would need for recovery, and the main predictor of persistent use is whether or not they fill that initial prescription."

Harbaugh and her colleagues looked at insurance claims for opioid prescriptions between 2009 and 2015. Hydrocodone (70%) was the most common opioid prescribed after wisdom tooth removal, followed by oxycodone (24%). Long-term opioid use was defined as two or more prescriptions filled in the year after wisdom tooth removal.

But other factors besides dental surgery raised the risk of long-term opioid use. Teens and young adults who had a history of chronic pain or mental health issues such as depression and anxiety were more likely to go on to regular use after filling their initial opioid prescription.

"These are some of the first data to the show long-term ill effects of routine opioid prescribing after tooth extractions. When taken together with the previous studies showing that opioids are not helpful in these cases, dentists and oral surgeons should stop routinely prescribing opioids for wisdom tooth extractions and likely other common dental procedures," said senior author Chad Brummett, MD, co-director of the Michigan Opioid Prescribing and Engagement Network.

There are no specific prescribing guidelines for wisdom tooth removal. The American Dental Association recommends that dentists first consider non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for pain relief. It also supports the CDC opioid guidelines, which recommend that opioids be limited to no more than 7 days' supply for acute pain.

A small 2016 study found that over half the opioids prescribed to patients after wisdom tooth removal or dental surgery go unused, with many of the leftover pills being abused or stolen by friends and family members. On average, dental patients received 28 opioid pills and – three weeks later – most had pills leftover.