Opioid dose and drug-related mortality in patients with nonmalignant pain

Arch Intern Med. 2011 Apr 11;171(7):686-91. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2011.117.


Background: Opioids are widely prescribed for chronic nonmalignant pain, often at doses exceeding those recommended in clinical practice guidelines. However, the risk-benefit ratio of high-dose opioid therapy is not well characterized. The objective of this study was to characterize the relationship between opioid dose and opioid-related mortality.

Methods: We conducted a population-based nested case-control study of Ontario, Canada, residents aged 15 to 64 years who were eligible for publicly funded prescription drug coverage and had received an opioid from August 1, 1997, through December 31, 2006, for nonmalignant pain. The outcome of interest was opioid-related death, as determined by the investigating coroner. The risk of opioid-related death was compared among patients treated with various daily doses of opioids.

Results: Among 607,156 people aged 15 to 64 years prescribed an opioid over the study period, we identified 498 eligible patients whose deaths were related to opioids and 1714 matched controls. After extensive multivariable adjustment, we found that an average daily dose of 200 mg or more of morphine (or equivalent), was associated with a nearly 3-fold increase in the risk of opioid-related mortality (odds ratio [OR], 2.88; 95% confidence interval [CI], 1.79-4.63) relative to low daily doses (<20 mg of morphine, or equivalent). We found significant but attenuated increases in opioid-related mortality with intermediate doses of opioids (50-99 mg/d of morphine: OR, 1.92; 95% CI, 1.30-2.85; 100-199 mg/d of morphine: OR, 2.04; 95% CI, 1.28-3.24).

Conclusion: Among patients receiving opioids for nonmalignant pain, the daily dose is strongly associated with opioid-related mortality, particularly at doses exceeding thresholds recommended in recent clinical guidelines.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage
  • Analgesics, Opioid / poisoning*
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Drug-Related Side Effects and Adverse Reactions / mortality*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Ontario / epidemiology
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics, Opioid