By Itself, Spine Surgery Not a Risk Factor for Prolonged Opioid Use

OpioidsThe use of prescription painkillers in the US increased four-fold between 1997 and 2010, and postoperative overdoses doubled over a similar time period. In the August 2, 2017 edition of The Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery, Schoenfeld et al. estimated the proportion of nearly 10,000 initially opioid-naïve TRICARE patients who used opioids up to 1 year after discharge for one of four common spinal surgical procedures (discectomy, decompression, lumbar posterolateral arthrodesis, or lumbar interbody arthrodesis).

Eighty-four percent of the patients filled at least 1 opioid prescription upon hospital discharge. At 30 days following discharge, 8% continued opioid use; at 3 months, 1% continued use; and at 6 months, 0.1%. Only 2 patients (0.02%) in this cohort continued prescription opioid use at 1 year following surgery.

In an adjusted analysis, the authors found that an age of 25 to 34 years, lower socioeconomic status, and a diagnosis of depression were significantly associated with an increased likelihood of continuing opioid use. Those patient-related factors notwithstanding, the authors claim that the outcomes in their study “directly contravene the narrative that patients who undergo spine surgery, once started on prescription opioids following surgery, are at high risk of sustained opioid use.”

However, in his commentary on this study, Robert J. Barth, PhD, cautions that the exclusion criteria restricted even this large sample to about 19% of representative spine surgery candidates, making the findings not widely generalizable. Having said that, the commentator adds that the study supports findings of prior research that persistent postoperative opioid use is more related to “addressable patient-level predictors” than postsurgical pain. He also notes that the findings are “supportive of guidelines that call for surgical-discharge prescriptions of opioids to be limited to ≤2 weeks.”

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