Context: Record numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans survive their war injuries and yet continue to experience pain and mental health problems, particularly posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Little is known about the association of mental health disorders and prescription opioid use.
Objective: To investigate the effect of mental health disorders, particularly PTSD, on risks and adverse clinical outcomes associated with prescription opioid use.
Design: Retrospective cohort study involving 141,029 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who received at least 1 non-cancer-related pain diagnosis within 1 year of entering the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care system from October 1, 2005, through December 31, 2010.
Main outcome measures: Independent association of mental health disorders and the prescription of opioids, higher risk opioid use, and adverse clinical outcomes (eg, accidents and overdose) within 1 year of receiving a pain-related diagnosis.
Results: A total of 15,676 veterans were prescribed opioids within 1 year of their initial pain diagnosis. Compared with 6.5% of veterans without mental health disorders, 17.8% (adjusted relative risk [RR], 2.58; 95% CI, 2.49-2.67) of veterans with PTSD and 11.7% (adjusted RR, 1.74; 95% CI, 1.67-1.82) with other mental health diagnoses but without PTSD were significantly more likely to receive opioids for pain diagnoses. Of those who were prescribed pain medication, veterans with PTSD were more likely than those without mental health disorders to receive higher-dose opioids (22.7% vs 15.9%, adjusted RR, 1.42; 95% CI, 1.31-1.54), receive 2 or more opioids concurrently (19.8% vs 10.7%, adjusted RR, 1.87; 95% CI, 1.70-2.06), receive sedative hypnotics concurrently (40.7% vs 7.6%, adjusted RR, 5.46; 95% CI, 4.91-6.07), or obtain early opioid refills (33.8% vs 20.4%; adjusted RR, 1.64; 95% CI, 1.53-1.75). Receiving prescription opioids (vs not) was associated with an increased risk of adverse clinical outcomes for all veterans (9.5% vs 4.1%; RR, 2.33; 95% CI, 2.20-2.46), which was most pronounced in veterans with PTSD.
Conclusion: Among US veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, mental health diagnoses, especially PTSD, were associated with an increased risk of receiving opioids for pain, high-risk opioid use, and adverse clinical outcomes.