Impacts of Initial Prescription Length and Prescribing Limits on Risk of Prolonged Postsurgical Opioid Use

Med Care. 2022 Jan 1;60(1):75-82. doi: 10.1097/MLR.0000000000001663.


Background: In response to concerns about opioid addiction following surgery, many states have implemented laws capping the days supplied for initial postoperative prescriptions. However, few studies have examined changes in the risk of prolonged opioid use associated with the initial amount prescribed.

Objective: The objective of this study was to estimate the risk of prolonged opioid use associated with the length of initial opioid prescribed and the potential impact of prescribing limits.

Research design: Using Medicare insurance claims (2007-2017), we identified opioid-naive adults undergoing surgery. Using G-computation methods with logistic regression models, we estimated the risk of prolonged opioid use (≥1 opioid prescription dispensed in 3 consecutive 30-d windows following surgery) associated with the varying initial number of days supplied. We then estimate the potential reduction in cases of prolonged opioid use associated with varying prescribing limits.

Results: We identified 1,060,596 opioid-naive surgical patients. Among the 70.0% who received an opioid for postoperative pain, 1.9% had prolonged opioid use. The risk of prolonged use increased from 0.7% (1 d supply) to 4.4% (15+ d). We estimated that a prescribing limit of 4 days would be associated with a risk reduction of 4.84 (3.59, 6.09)/1000 patients and would be associated with 2255 cases of prolonged use potentially avoided. The commonly used day supply limit of 7 would be associated with a smaller reduction in risk [absolute risk difference=2.04 (-0.17, 4.25)/1000].

Conclusions: The risk of prolonged opioid use following surgery increased monotonically with increasing prescription duration. Common prescribing maximums based on days supplied may impact many patients but are associated with relatively low numbers of reduced cases of prolonged use. Any prescribing limits need to be weighed against the need for adequate pain management.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Analgesics, Opioid / administration & dosage*
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Correlation of Data
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / epidemiology
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / etiology
  • Pain Management / adverse effects
  • Pain Management / methods
  • Pain Management / statistics & numerical data
  • Pain, Postoperative / drug therapy
  • Pain, Postoperative / epidemiology
  • Postoperative Care / standards
  • Postoperative Care / statistics & numerical data
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / standards
  • Practice Patterns, Physicians' / statistics & numerical data
  • Time Factors*
  • United States / epidemiology


  • Analgesics, Opioid