How acute pain leads to chronic opioid use

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The studies described above have had a powerful effect on my clinical care as a hospitalist.

I now talk to all patients starting opioids about how hard it can be to stop. Some patients are defensive at first, believing this does not apply to them. But I politely continue.

People with depression and anxiety can have a harder time stopping opioids. Addiction is both a risk with ongoing opioid use and a possible outcome of acute opioid use.8 But one can struggle to stop opioids without being addicted or depressed. Even the healthiest person may wish to continue opioids past the point of benefit.

I am careful not to invalidate the patient’s experience of pain. It is challenging for patients to find the balance between current discomfort and a possible future adverse effect. In these conversations, I imagine how I would want a loved one counseled on their pain control. This centers me as I choose my words and my tone.

I now monitor the total amount of opioid I prescribe for acute pain in addition to the daily dose. I give my patients as few opioids as reasonable, and advise them to take the minimum dose required for tolerable comfort. I offer nonopioid options as the preferred choice, presenting them as effective and safe. I do this irrespective of the indication for opioids.

I limit opioids in all patients, not just those with comorbidities. I include in my shared decision-making process the risk of chronic opioid use when I prescribe opioids for acute pain, carefully distinguishing it from opioid use disorder. Instead of excess opioids, I give patients my office phone number to call in case they struggle. I rarely get calls. But I find patients would rather have access to a doctor than extra pills. And offering them my contact information lets me limit opioids while letting them know that I am committed to their comfort and health.

As an addiction medicine doctor, I consult on patients not taking their opioids as prescribed. Caring for these patients is intellectually and emotionally draining; they suffer daily, and the opioids they take provide a modicum of relief at a high cost. The publications I have discussed here provide insight into how a troubled relationship with opioids begins. I remind myself that these patients have an iatrogenic condition. Their behaviors that we label “aberrant” may reflect an adverse reaction to medications prescribed to them for acute pain.

Mary, my patient with postoperative pain after cholecystectomy, may over time develop opioid use disorder as Heather did. That progression may have begun with the hydrocodone I prescribed and the counseling I gave her, and it may proceed to chronic opioid use and then opioid use disorder.

I am looking closely at the care I give for acute pain in light of these innovative studies. But even more so, they have increased the compassion with which I care for patients like Heather, those harmed by prescribed opioids.

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