CDC urges providers to consider risks of opioid treatments

Although opioid prescriptions declined for five years since a peak in 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the highest-prescribing counties dispensed six times more opioids per resident in 2015. The CDC urges providers to consider evidence-based guidance for opioid prescriptions and weigh the risks and benefits of such treatment with patients.

Demographics

According to the CDC’s Vital Signs report, a breakdown of the number of opioids prescribed per person in 2015 by county revealed considerable variation, with clusters of high-rate counties located in various places across the country. The CDC believes that the variation reveals inconsistencies among providers who prescribe opioids. Counties with higher prescribing tended to have small cities or large towns, more white residents, more dentists and primary care providers, a higher rate of uninsurance or unemployment, and more people with a chronic condition like diabetes or arthritis, or a disability.

Issues

The CDC identified three specific issues with high prescribing that pose risks for patients. In 2015, there were enough opioids prescribed to keep every American constantly medicated for three weeks. This level of prescription may indicate that providers need to consider more non-opioid treatment options, such as physical therapy and other medications, and only use opioids when the benefits are most likely to outweigh the risks.

Even for those on low doses, taking an opioid for more than three months increases a patient’s risk of addiction 15 fold. When treating acute pain, opioids should only be prescribed for the expected duration of severe pain. In addition, a dose of 50 morphine milligram equivalents (MMEs) or more per day doubles a patient’s risk of overdose death. The CDC believes that the average daily MME per prescription remains too high.

Resources

The CDC recommends continuously balancing risks and benefits throughout opioid treatment, from the starting prescription through dosage increases. The agency’s Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain outlines when a provider should initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain, treatment options, and risks and harms of opioid use.