Rise in Opioid Prescriptions for Low-Risk Surgeries

    Physicians are prescribing more opioid painkillers than ever before to patients undergoing common surgeries, according to new research published online in JAMA simultaneously with a major new guideline from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that calls on physicians to avoid over-prescription of opioids for surgical patients and other patients with painful conditions.

    Opioid abuse and addiction is a growing concern in the U.S. with the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimating that approximately 2.1 million Americans suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers and an estimated 467,000 Americans are addicted to heroin, with increasing recognition of the strong relationship between opioid use and heroin abuse.

    The new study used data from insurance claims from 2004 through 2012 for 155,297 adults undergoing 4 common outpatient surgeries: carpal tunnel repair, laparoscopic gall bladder removal, some minimally invasive knee surgeries, and hernia repair.

    In an analysis of patients who had not received an opioid prescription in the 6 months prior to surgery, the researchers observed that 4 out of every 5 patients in the study filled a prescription for an opioid pain medication within the 7 days after surgery. The percentage of patients who received those drugs increased over for the period studied all 4 surgical procedures.

    Most notably, the amount of opioid medication dispensed to patients after surgery also increased markedly between 2004 and 2012 for all procedures studied. Among patients undergoing knee arthroscopy, for example, the investigators estimated a greater than 18% increase in the average total amount of opioid dispensed, driven by a change in the average daily dose.

    “These data show us a concerning trend,” said the study’s senior author, Mark Neuman, MD, MSc, an assistant professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Center for Perioperative Outcomes Research and Transformation (Penn CPORT).

    “The growth we observe over time in opioid prescribing after surgery occurs against the backdrop of a major public health crisis of prescription opioid abuse. Additional work is needed to understand how postoperative opioid prescribing patterns might play into this epidemic, and to define better strategies for treating postoperative pain safely and effectively in the future.”


    Wunsch H, Wijeysundera DN, Passarella MA, Neuman MD. Opioids prescribed after low-risk surgical procedures in the United States, 2004-2012. 2016 Mar 15. doi: 10.1001/jama.2016.0130. [Epub ahead of print]