Study: Prolonged opioid use is the most common postsurgical complication

A significant portion of surgical patients continue using opioid painkillers more than three months after surgery. This pattern of prolonged use does not differ among major and minor surgical patients, suggesting pain related to surgery is not the lone driver of the extended opioid use, according to a new study published in JAMA Surgery.

With millions of Americans undergoing surgery every year, and postoperative opioid painkiller prescribing practices varying widely across the nation, researchers sought to assess the relationship between first-time opioid exposure postsurgery and long-term opioid use.

For the study, researchers examined administrative health claims compiled in the Clinformatics Data Mart from January 2012 through June 2015 on minor and major surgical procedures performed on more than 36,000 adults ages 18 to 64 who had not used opioids in the year prior to surgery. Researchers defined persistent opioid use as filling an opioid prescription between 90 and 180 days after surgery.

Analysis revealed comparable rates of long-term opioid use between patients who underwent major surgical procedures and those who had minor surgery. The rate of persistent opioid use among major surgical patients was 6.5 percent and for minor surgical patients the rate was 5.9 percent.

"In a cohort of previously opioid-naive patients, approximately 6 percent continued to use opioids more than three months after their surgery, and as such, prolonged opioid use can be deemed the most common postsurgical complication," concluded the study's authors. "New persistent opioid use is not different among patients who underwent minor and major surgical procedures, thereby suggesting that prolonged opioid use is not entirely due to surgical pain."

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