How acute pain leads to chronic opioid use

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Mary, age 38, was hospitalized for acute cholecystitis requiring laparoscopic surgery. Her hospital course was uneventful. At the time of discharge, I, her inpatient doctor, prescribed 15 hydrocodone tablets for postoperative pain. I never saw her again. Did she struggle to stop taking the hydrocodone I prescribed?

Heather is a 50-year-old patient in my addiction medicine clinic who developed opioid use disorder while being treated for chronic pain. After much hardship and to her credit, she is now in long-term remission. Did her opioid use disorder start with an opioid prescription for an accepted indication?

The issues Mary and Heather face seem unrelated, but these 2 patients may be at different time points in the progression of the same disease. As a hospitalist, I want to optimize the chances that patients taking opioids for acute pain will be able to stop taking them.


There is a distinction between chronic use of opioids and opioid use disorder. The latter is also known as addiction.

Patients who take opioids daily do not necessarily have opioid use disorder, even if they have physiologic dependence on them. Physiologic opioid dependence is commonly confused with opioid use disorder, but it is the expected result of regularly taking these drugs.

Opioid use disorder is a chronic disease of the brain characterized by loss of control over opioid use, resulting in harm. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, fifth edition, excludes physiologic dependence on opioids (tolerance and withdrawal) from its criteria for opioid use disorder if the patient is taking opioids solely under medical supervision.1 To be diagnosed with opioid use disorder, patients need to do only 2 of the following within 12 months:

  • Take more of the drug than intended
  • Want or try to cut down without success
  • Spend a lot of time in getting, using, or recovering from the drug
  • Crave the drug
  • Fail to meet commitments due to the drug
  • Continue to use the drug, even though it causes social or relationship problems
  • Give up or reduce other activities because of the drug
  • Use the drug even when it isn’t safe
  • Continue to use even when it causes physical or psychological problems
  • Develop tolerance (but, as noted, not if taking the drug as directed under a doctor’s supervision)
  • Experience withdrawal (again, but not if taking the drug under medical supervision).


Studying opioid use disorder as an outcome in large groups of patients is complicated by imperfect medical documentation. However, using pharmacy claims data, researchers can accurately describe opioid prescription patterns in large groups of patients over time. This means we can count how many patients keep taking prescribed opioids but not how many become addicted.

In a country where nearly 40% of adults are prescribed an opioid annually, the question is not why people start taking opioids, but why some have to struggle to stop.2 Several recent studies used pharmacy claims data to identify factors that may predict chronic opioid use in patients prescribed opioids for acute pain. The findings suggest that we can better treat acute pain to prevent chronic opioid use.

We don’t yet know how to protect patients like Mary from opioid use disorder, but the following 3 studies have already changed my practice.


[Shah A, Hayes CJ, Martin BC. Characteristics of initial prescription episodes and likelihood of long-term opioid use—United States, 2006–2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2017; 66(10):265–269.]

Shah et al3 reported a study of nearly 1.3 million opioid-naive patients who received opioid prescriptions. Of those prescribed at least 1 day of opioids, 6% were still taking them 1 year later, and 2.9% were still taking them 3 years later.

Opioid exposure in acute pain was measured in total “morphine milligram equivalents” (MME), ie, the cumulative amount of opioids prescribed in the treatment episode, standardized across different types of opioids. We usually think of exposure in terms of how many milligrams a patient takes per day, which correlates with mortality in chronic opioid use.4 But this study showed a linear relationship between total MME prescribed for acute pain and ongoing opioid use in opioid-naive patients. By itself, the difference between daily and total MME made the article revelatory.

But the study went further, asking how much is too much: ie, What is the cutoff MME above which the patient is at risk of chronic opioid use? The relationship between acute opioid dose and chronic use is linear and starts early. Shah et al suggested that a total threshold of 700 MME predicts chronic opioid use—140 hydrocodone tablets, or 1 month of regular use.3

Many doctors worry that specific opioids such as oxycodone, hydromorphone, and fentanyl may be more habit-forming. Surprisingly, this study showed that these drugs were associated with rates of chronic use similar to those of other opioids when they controlled for potency.

Bottom line. Total opioid use in acute pain was the best predictor of chronic opioid use, and it showed that chronicity begins earlier than thought.

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