Objective: Concerns regarding the efficacy, toxicity, tolerance, dependence, and abuse of opioids have limited their use for patients with chronic spine pain. In our previous study of rheumatology clinic patients, opioid analgesics were found to be highly effective, produced only mild side effects, and had few instances of opioid abuse. The purpose of this study was to replicate our previous study in another large cohort of patients with nonmalignant pain due to well-defined spinal diseases.
Methods: Opioid use was studied in 230 orthopedics spine clinic patients by retrospective analysis of prescriptions for 3 years and cross-sectional analysis of efficacy and toxicity by patient interviews. Opioid use and stability of the daily dose over 3 years were derived from computerized pharmacy records. Medical records, operative reports, and radiographic studies were reviewed to determine the reason for dosage escalations and to detect instances of abuse or addiction behaviors. Patients were interviewed to determine the efficacy, frequency, and types of side effects and instances of obtaining opioids from sources outside the Veterans Affairs system.
Results: Opioids were prescribed for 152 of the 230 patients, for < 3 months (short-term [STO]) in 94, > or =3 months (long-term [LTO]) in 58, and none in 72 (no opioid [NTO]). Medications prescribed were codeine, oxycodone, propoxyphene, tramadol, morphine, meperidine, fentanyl, or hydroxycodone, either alone or in combination. Interviews were completed in 72 STO, 50 LTO, and 45 NTO patients. Pain severity (0-10 scale) was not different in patients with different spinal pathologies. Opioids significantly reduced the back pain severity score from 8.3 +/- 1.5 to 4.5 +/- 2.2 (mean +/- SD). Mild side effects (most commonly, constipation and sedation) were reported by 58% of the opioid-treated patients but rarely caused them to stop taking the medication. There was no significant increase from the mean +/- SD initial opioid dosage of 5.0 +/- 12.2 30-mg codeine equivalents per day (30 mg oral codeine = 5 mg oral morphine) to the mean peak dosage of 7.9 +/- 12.5 and the mean recent dosage of 4.3 +/- 6.3, suggesting that tolerance to opioid analgesia did not appear to occur in these patients. Dosage escalations of > 2 30-mg codeine equivalents occurred 19 times in 17 LTO patients and was due to worsening of the underlying painful condition, complications of spine surgery, or unrelated surgical or medical problems in all but 3 of them (5%). These 3 patients also displayed other abuse behaviors. Abuse behaviors were not more frequent in those with or without a history of abuse/addiction.
Conclusion: This study provides data on the efficacy, toxicity, tolerance, and abuse or addiction behaviors with opioid therapy in a large cohort of patients in an orthopedics spine clinic. The results provide objective data from patients with well-defined spine diagnoses to challenge the position that opioid treatment is inappropriate for chronic nonmalignant pain. This study provides clinical evidence to support and protect physicians treating patients with chronic musculoskeletal diseases, who may be reluctant to prescribe opioids because of possible sanctions from regulatory agencies. More important, it will benefit patients by permitting them to receive these effective, safe medications.