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Assessing adverse events tied to outpatient opioid use in children

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Pain relief may outweigh side effects in pediatric opioid use

“We know that opioids are associated with many untoward side effects and are potentially lethal. But we believe there is a reason why opioids have been used to treat pain since the Sumerians 5,000 years ago,” Elliot J. Krane, MD, Steven J. Weisman, MD, and Gary A. Walco, PhD, wrote in an accompanying editorial.

The editorialists noted that they are not blanket advocates of opioid prescriptions for children, but they do believe in the importance of pain management for conditions including postsurgical pain, burns, physical trauma, and medical illnesses. In many cases, opioids are the most effective treatment option.

In addition, data on opioid-related deaths in the United States have been shown inaccurate for various reasons including the coding of deaths as opioid related if opioids were present among a number of other drugs, even if the cause of death was another substance or an act such as suicide, the writers noted. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has admitted overestimating the prevalence of opioid-related deaths by as much as 100%. Consequently, the opioid epidemic portrayed in the media, “pales in comparison with other public health hazards and causes of deaths in America such as tobacco-related deaths, alcoholic hepatic disease, and even hospital-acquired infections,” Dr. Krane, Dr. Weisman, and Dr. Walco said.

“The data as presented cannot be considered causal for associating opioid prescribing with severe morbidity, more hospital emergency department visits, and even death,” the editorialists concluded. They emphasized the need for good judgment on the part of clinicians when prescribing opioids to children and advocated always making good use of nonopioid alternatives, but Dr. Krane, Dr. Weisman, and Dr. Walco added that the findings of this study should not deter doctors from prescribing an opioid when they think it is the most effective and appropriate option for moderately to severely painful conditions.

“Too often, consideration of the need to prevent and treat pain can be lost in the national discussion,” they said.

Dr. Krane is affiliated with Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., Dr. Weisman is affiliated with the Medical College of Milwaukee, Wisc., and Dr. Walco is affiliated with the University of Washington, Seattle. Dr. Krane disclosed consulting for Collegium Pharmaceuticals and honoraria for lecturing on pain and analgesia. Dr. Weisman disclosed consulting for Grünenthal Pharmaceuticals and Pfizer Pharmaceuticals and has conducted clinical trials for Grünenthal Pharmaceuticals, Cadence Pharmaceuticals, and The Medicines Company. Their editorial accompanying the article by Chung et al. appeared in Pediatrics (2018 Jul 16. doi: 10.1542/peds.2018-1623).



Nearly three-quarters of opioid-related adverse events seen in children were related to therapeutic opioid use, based on data from more than a million prescriptions.

Bottles of opioids/pills BackyardProduction/Thinkstock

Prescription of opioids to children for outpatient conditions may have risen along with the increased opioid prescriptions for adults, but most of the literature focuses on opioid toxicity in children, and “the incidence of adverse opioid effects for children during appropriate medical use for relatively minor conditions is unknown,” wrote Cecilia P. Chung, MD, of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and her colleagues.

In a retrospective study published in Pediatrics, the researchers reviewed data from 401,972 children and adolescents aged 2-17 years with no chronic or severe conditions. The patients filled a total of 1,362,503 prescriptions for opioids, with a mean 15% filling one or more opioid prescriptions a year, and 1 in every 2,611 prescriptions was followed by an emergency department visit, hospitalization, or death related to an adverse event associated with opioid use.

Approximately 20% of the prescriptions were for children aged 2-5 years, 28% for ages 6-11 years, and 52% for ages 12-17 years. The patients were enrolled in Medicaid between Jan. 1, 1999, and Dec. 31, 2014, in Tennessee, and were seen at outpatient centers. Dental procedures were the most common reasons for opioid prescriptions in the study population (31%), followed by outpatient procedures or surgeries (25%), trauma (18%), and infections (16%).

Overall, 437 cases of opioid-related adverse events were confirmed by medical record review; 89% of these were deemed related to the prescription, and 71% were related to proper therapeutic use, the researchers said. The remainder were considered to be related to unintentional overdose, abuse, self-harm, or the circumstances were not indicated.

The opioid-related symptoms most frequently were gastrointestinal, neuropsychiatric, dermatologic, and central nervous system depression.

“The incidence of opioid-related adverse events increased for children and adolescents 12-17 years of age, during current opioid use, and with higher opioid doses,” the researchers said.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the use of Medicaid patients only, the lack of clinical details such as patient weight, and the potential for incomplete medical records, Dr. Chung and her associates noted. However, the results support the need for more comprehensive guidelines in treating acute, self-limited conditions in children to reduce unnecessary opioid exposure, they said.

The researchers had no relevant financial conflicts to disclose. The study was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development and funded by the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Chung received grant support from the National Institutes of Health and the Rheumatology Research Foundation Career Development Research K-supplement.

SOURCE: Chung C et al. Pediatrics. 2018 Jul 16. doi: 10.1542/peds.2017-2156.

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