Original Research

Incidence of Chronic Opioid Use in Previously Opioid-Naïve Patients Receiving Opioids for Analgesia in the Intensive Care Unit

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Objective: Inappropriate prescribing of opioids has contributed to misuse and a rise in accidental deaths. The purpose of this study was to determine the incidence of chronic opioid use in previously opioid-naïve patients who received opioids for analgesia while in the intensive care unit (ICU) and to identify potential risk factors in patients that transition to chronic opioid use.

Methods: A retrospective analysis included patients admitted to the medical, surgical, or cardiovascular ICU at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, Texas, between August 2017 and December 2017. Patients were screened to confirm opioid-naïve status prior to admission, defined as ≤ 30 days of opioid prescription use in the prior 12 months. Patients were included if they received a continuous opioid infusion for ≥ 12 consecutive hours. Prescription fill data from the health record were examined at 3, 6, and 12 months postdischarge to determine whether patients were receiving chronic opioid treatment.

Results: Records of 330 patients were reviewed and 118 patients met the inclusion criteria. All patients received fentanyl infusion, for a median time of 35 hours (interquartile range 18.8-64.7 hours). Ninety (76.3%) patients were receiving opioids postdischarge at 3 months, 23 (19.5%) at 6 months, and 9 (7.6%) at 12 months. At 3 months, ICU type (odds ratio [OR], 3.9; 95% CI 1.73-8.75; P < .001) and being a surgical patient (OR, 7.8; 95% CI 3.26-18.56; P < .001) were risk factors for chronic opioid use. No specific risk factors were found to increase the risk of chronic opioid use at 6 and 12 months.

Conclusions: The incidence of chronic opioid use decreased at 6 and 12 months compared with that of 3 months postdischarge. ICU type and hospital admission related to surgery were not associated with increased opioid use at 3 months.



Chronic pain is a worldwide cause of impairment. According to data from the 2016 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 50 million American adults suffer from chronic pain, with 19.6 million adults suffering from high-impact chronic pain.1 This phenomenon is particularly prevalent in the older population. More than 25% of adults aged 65 to 74 years reported that they were often in pain in the past 3 months compared with just 10% of those adults between the ages of 18 and 44 years.2

The economic burdens of chronic pain disorders are well known. In 2010, Gaskin and Richard found that chronic pain has far-reaching consequences for the US economy, ranging from direct health care costs to lost productivity. This study estimated additional health care costs at about $300 billion yearly and lost productivity at $300 billion, bringing total annual costs to about $600 billion. This expense is more than heart disease alone ($309 billion), and cancer and diabetes mellitus ($243 billion and $188 billion respectively) combined.3

Opioid medications are powerful and effective pain-reducing agents that are indicated for short-term acute pain or long-term in the management of chronic, severe cancer-related pain.4 Although efficacious, use of these medications carries with it the inherent risks of abuse, misuse, addiction, and overdose.5 Since 1999, opioid-related overdose deaths have been on the rise. The CDC estimated that > 15,000 deaths were attributable specifically to prescription opioids in 2015.6 The estimates had risen to > 17,000 deaths in 2017, with the number increasing since that time.7 Cumulatively, the CDC estimates that > 200,000 deaths in the US between 1999 and 2017 are attributed to prescription opioid overdose, clearly marking this trend as a growing nationwide epidemic.8

In 2016, Florence and colleagues estimated costs associated with opioid overdose to be just shy of $80 billion in 2013 dollars.9 In October 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency and committed $900 million to combating the crisis.10

An abundance of data exist analyzing outpatient prescribing and its impacts on opioid dependence, particularly postoperatively. A study by Brummett and colleagues indicated that the incidence of new persistent opioid use in patients who underwent surgery was 5.9% to 6.5% and did not differ between major and minor surgical procedures. This study concluded that new opioid use could be considered one of the most common complications after elective surgery.11 Similarly, in 2017 Makary and colleagues found that surgeons tend to overprescribe pain medications after procedures; some prescribing as many as 50 to 60 tablets to control pain after simple procedures.12 This is in stark contrast to pain guideline recommendations of no more than 10 tablets for most standard operative procedures.13

Sun and colleagues conducted a retrospective analysis of health care claims data in more than 18 million opioid-naïve patients who did and did not undergo surgery. Seven of the 11 surgical procedures were associated with an increased risk of chronic opioid use. The highest incidence of chronic opioid use in the first postoperative year was for total hip arthroplasty (1.4%, OR 5.10; 95% CI, 1.29-1.53). The study found that the risk factors most associated with chronic opioid use after surgery were male sex, aged > 50 years, and preoperative history of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, or depression, along with benzodiazepine use or antidepressant use.14 In a 2018 cohort study that evaluated predictors associated with transitioning to incident chronic opioid therapy, 4 factors were identified. These included opioid duration of action (adjusted odds ratio [AOR], 12.28; 95% CI, 8.1-06-18.72), the parent opioid compound (eg, tramadol vs codeine; AOR, 7.26; 95% CI, 5.20-10.13), the presence of conditions that are very likely to cause chronic pain (AOR, 5.47; 95% CI, 3.89-7.68), and drug use disorders (AOR, 4.02; 95% CI, 2.53-6.40).15

While there has been research into outpatient risk factors and medical practices that may contribute to chronic opioid use, a relative paucity of data exists on the contribution of hospitalization and inpatient opioid use on patient outcomes. A 2014 Canadian study assessed the impact of opioid use in the intensive care unit (ICU) on opioid use after discharge.16 This study included more than 2,500 patients who were admitted to a Canadian ICU between 2005 and 2008, and then followed after discharge for 48 months to quantify chronic opioid use. Nonopioid users increased from 87.8% in the early post-ICU period to 95.6% at 48 months after discharge. Preadmission chronic opioid use and prolonged hospital length of stay (LOS) were found to be associated with an increased risk of chronic opioid use after discharge.16 To date, there are no published studies that analyze the incidence of opioid-naïve veterans who convert to chronic opioid use after receiving opioids during an acute hospitalization.

In this retrospective analysis, we analyze the incidence of chronic opioid use after administration of opioids in the ICU as well as a variety of risk factors that may influence conversion to chronic opioid use.


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Elderly Americans carry heavier opioid burden

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