Objective: To determine the risk of prolonged opioid use in patients receiving tramadol compared with other short acting opioids.
Design: Observational study of administrative claims data.
Setting: United States commercial and Medicare Advantage insurance claims (OptumLabs Data Warehouse) January 1, 2009 through June 30, 2018.
Participants: Opioid-naive patients undergoing elective surgery.
Main outcome measure: Risk of persistent opioid use after discharge for patients treated with tramadol alone compared with other short acting opioids, using three commonly used definitions of prolonged opioid use from the literature: additional opioid use (defined as at least one opioid fill 90-180 days after surgery); persistent opioid use (any span of opioid use starting in the 180 days after surgery and lasting ≥90 days); and CONSORT definition (an opioid use episode starting in the 180 days after surgery that spans ≥90 days and includes either ≥10 opioid fills or ≥120 days' supply of opioids).
Results: Of 444 764 patients who met the inclusion criteria, 357 884 filled a discharge prescription for one or more opioids associated with one of 20 included operations. The most commonly prescribed post-surgery opioid was hydrocodone (53.0% of those filling a single opioid), followed by short acting oxycodone (37.5%) and tramadol (4.0%). The unadjusted risk of prolonged opioid use after surgery was 7.1% (n=31 431) with additional opioid use, 1.0% (n=4457) with persistent opioid use, and 0.5% (n=2027) meeting the CONSORT definition. Receipt of tramadol alone was associated with a 6% increase in the risk of additional opioid use relative to people receiving other short acting opioids (incidence rate ratio 95% confidence interval 1.00 to 1.13; risk difference 0.5 percentage points; P=0.049), 47% increase in the adjusted risk of persistent opioid use (1.25 to 1.69; 0.5 percentage points; P<0.001), and 41% increase in the adjusted risk of a CONSORT chronic opioid use episode (1.08 to 1.75; 0.2 percentage points; P=0.013).
Conclusions: People receiving tramadol alone after surgery had similar to somewhat higher risks of prolonged opioid use compared with those receiving other short acting opioids. Federal governing bodies should consider reclassifying tramadol, and providers should use as much caution when prescribing tramadol in the setting of acute pain as for other short acting opioids.
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