In brief: they studied 9940 HMO patients (mean age 54) who received 3 or more opioid prescriptions within 90 days for chronic noncancer pain between 1997 and 2005. They used ICD codes with subsesquent chart review to identify “opioid-related overdoses”, and found 51 events, of which 6 were fatal. After stratifying by categories of opiate exposure, they estimated that annual overdose rates were 0.2%, 0.7%, and 1.8% among patients receiving less than 20 mg, 50 to 99 mg, and more than 100 mg of opioids per day, respectively. (For more journal-club style details and analysis, check out the Pallimed post, which is good reading for those with a little more time and interest.)
I’ll confess that when this article caught my eye, one of my first thoughts was “Argh! Now it will be even HARDER for me to persuade my elderly patients to try a little low-dose opiate for their severe arthritis, when all else has failed to control their pain.”
Yes, it’s true. I have some of my arthritic elders taking a little daily opiate for their pain: it allows them to walk around a little more and maintain their function, or so I tell myself.
But what do the rest of you think? In particular I’m curious to know what the primary care clinicians among you prefer to use for chronic noncancer pain in frail elders. And how easy do you find it to address the patient’s (or often, the family’s) worries about the risk of addiction or overdose? Will this latest study change your practice?