Wide Variation and Excessive Dosage of Opioid Prescriptions for Common General Surgical Procedures

Ann Surg. 2017 Apr;265(4):709-714. doi: 10.1097/SLA.0000000000001993.


Objective: To examine opioid prescribing patterns after general surgery procedures and to estimate an ideal number of pills to prescribe.

Background: Diversion of prescription opioids is a major contributor to the rising mortality from opioid overdoses. Data to inform surgeons on the optimal dose of opioids to prescribe after common general surgical procedures is lacking.

Methods: We evaluated 642 patients undergoing 5 outpatient procedures: partial mastectomy (PM), partial mastectomy with sentinel lymph node biopsy (PM SLNB), laparoscopic cholecystectomy (LC), laparoscopic inguinal hernia repair (LIH), and open inguinal hernia repair (IH). Postoperative opioid prescriptions and refill data were tabulated. A phone survey was conducted to determine the number of opioid pills taken.

Results: There was a wide variation in the number of opioid pills prescribed to patients undergoing the same operation. The median number (and range) prescribed were: PM 20 (0-50), PM SLNB 20 (0-60), LC 30 (0-100), LIH 30 (15-70), and IH 30 (15-120). Only 28% of the prescribed pills were taken. This percentage varied by operation: PM 15%, PM SLNB 25%, LC 33%, LIH 15%, and IH 31%. Less than 2% of patients obtained refills.We identified the number of pills that would fully supply the opioid needs of 80% of patients undergoing each operation: PM 5, PM SLNB 10, LC 15, LIH 15, and IH 15. If this number were prescribed, the number of opioid initially prescribed would be 43% of the actual number prescribed.

Conclusions: There is wide variability in opioid prescriptions for common general surgery procedures. In many cases excess pills are prescribed. Using our ideal number, surgeons can adequately treat postoperative pain and markedly decrease the number of opioids prescribed.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Ambulatory Surgical Procedures / methods
  • Ambulatory Surgical Procedures / statistics & numerical data
  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage*
  • Databases, Factual
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Drug Utilization
  • Female
  • General Surgery / methods*
  • General Surgery / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Inappropriate Prescribing / statistics & numerical data*
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Needs Assessment
  • Pain Measurement / drug effects
  • Pain, Postoperative / drug therapy*
  • Pain, Postoperative / physiopathology
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data
  • Risk Assessment
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / adverse effects*
  • Surgical Procedures, Operative / methods
  • United States


  • Analgesics, Opioid