Opioid Use During the Six Months After an Emergency Department Visit for Acute Pain: A Prospective Cohort Study

Ann Emerg Med. 2020 May;75(5):578-586. doi: 10.1016/j.annemergmed.2019.08.446. Epub 2019 Nov 1.


Study objective: Despite the frequent use of opioids to treat acute pain, the long-term risks and analgesic benefits of an opioid prescription for an individual emergency department (ED) patient with acute pain are still poorly understood and inadequately quantified. Our objective was to determine the frequency of recurrent or persistent opioid use during the 6 months after the ED visit METHODS: This was a prospective, observational cohort study of opioid-naive patients presenting to 2 EDs for acute pain who were prescribed an opioid at discharge. Patients were followed by telephone 6 months after the ED visit. Additionally, we reviewed the statewide prescription monitoring program database. Outcomes included frequency of recurrent and persistent opioid use and frequency of persistent moderate or severe pain 6 months after the ED visit. Persistent opioid use was defined as filling greater than or equal to 6 prescriptions during the 6-month study period.

Results: During 9 months beginning in November 2017, 733 patients were approached for participation. Four hundred eighty-four met inclusion criteria and consented to participate. Four hundred ten patients (85%) provided 6-month telephone data. The prescription monitoring database was reviewed for all 484 patients (100%). Most patients (317/484, 66%; 95% confidence interval 61% to 70%) filled only the initial prescription they received in the ED. One in 5 patients (102/484, 21%; 95% confidence interval 18% to 25%) filled at least 2 prescriptions within the 6-month period. Five patients (1%; 95% confidence interval 0% to 2%) met criteria for persistent opioid use. Of these 5 patients, all but 1 reported moderate or severe pain in the affected body part 6 months later.

Conclusion: Although 1 in 5 opioid-naive ED patients who received an opioid prescription for acute pain on ED discharge filled at least 2 opioid prescriptions in 6 months, only 1% had persistent opioid use. These patients with persistent opioid use were likely to report moderate or severe pain 6 months after the ED visit.

Publication types

  • Observational Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Acute Pain / drug therapy*
  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital / statistics & numerical data*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology*
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data*
  • Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs*
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Assessment
  • Time Factors


  • Analgesics, Opioid