What factors affect physicians' decisions to prescribe opioids for chronic noncancer pain patients?

Clin J Pain. 1997 Dec;13(4):330-6. doi: 10.1097/00002508-199712000-00011.


Objective: To evaluate the contribution of pain severity, physical pathology, demographic factors, initiators of symptoms, affective distress, behavioral expressions of pain, and functional activity levels in physicians' decisions to prescribe opioid medication for chronic noncancer pain patients.

Design: Patients were examined by a physician and physical therapist, interviewed by a psychologist, and asked to complete a medical history form and a set of self-report questionnaires. Patients who were prescribed opioids were compared with those who were not prescribed opioids on each of these. In addition, logistic regression analysis was performed to determine the best predictors of opioid prescriptions.

Subjects: A total of 191 (96 female and 95 male) consecutive patients referred to a multidisciplinary pain treatment facility diagnosed with a variety of chronic pain syndromes.

Results: Neither pain severity nor objective physical pathology influenced physicians' prescribing of opioids medication. Similarly, duration of pain and demographic factors had minimal impact on prescribing of opioids. Patients' behavioral manifestations of pain, distress, and suffering--pain behaviors--and reports of functional disability and distress did distinguish between patients prescribed opioid medications from those who did not. However, when all variables were entered into a logistic regression model, only observed pain behaviors showed a significant association with opioid prescriptions.

Conclusions: Physicians' practice in prescribing of opioids appears to be influenced most by patients' nonverbal communications of pain, distress, and suffering. Some of the factors not directly evaluated in this study that may also contribute to the decision to prescribe opioids for chronic noncancer pain patients are discussed.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affective Symptoms / complications
  • Affective Symptoms / psychology
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use*
  • Chronic Disease
  • Decision Making, Computer-Assisted
  • Depression / complications
  • Depression / psychology
  • Drug Prescriptions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Pain / drug therapy*
  • Pain / psychology
  • Pain Clinics
  • Pain Measurement
  • Physicians


  • Analgesics, Opioid