Examination of the clinical factors associated with attendance at emergency departments for chronic pain management and the cost of treatment relative to that of other significant medical conditions

Pain. 2021 Mar 1;162(3):886-894. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000002098.


Little is known about risk factors for emergency department (ED) attendance for chronic pain (CP) management and the relative service burden. We examined ED utilisation in patients with CP, identified risk factors associated with attendance for chronic musculoskeletal pain (CMP), and estimated the comparative cost of treatment. The study cohort comprised a random sample of 3700 adults from the general population in Tayside, Scotland. Linked regional extracts, spanning a 12-month period, were obtained from national registers, providing information on ED attendances, community-dispensed prescribing, and outpatient clinic attendances. The National Health Service Scotland Cost Book was used to ascertain the current average cost of an ED attendance (£130; ∼$167). All-cause ED attendance was higher in those with CP (68.5%; n = 252) than without (29.3%; n = 967). In the entire cohort, more patients attended the ED for the treatment of CMP than for any other medical condition (n = 119; 32.3% of those with CP). Risk factors for ED attendance for CMP were: recent analgesic dose decreases (OR = 4.55); and transitioning from opioid to nonopioid analgesics (OR = 5.08). Characteristics protective of ED attendance for CMP were: being in receipt of strong opioids (OR = 0.21); transitioning from nonopioid to opioid analgesics (OR = 0.25); recent analgesic dose increases (OR = 0.24); and being prescribed tricyclic antidepressants (OR = 0.10), benzodiazepines (OR = 0.46), or hypnotics (OR = 0.45). Chronic musculoskeletal pain was one of the most expensive conditions to treat (£17,680 [∼$22,668] per annum), conferring a substantial burden on ED services. Improved understanding of the risk/protective factors could inform healthcare redesign to reduce avoidable ED attendances for CMP management.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analgesics / therapeutic use
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Emergency Service, Hospital
  • Humans
  • Pain Management*
  • State Medicine*


  • Analgesics
  • Analgesics, Opioid