As a physician with an interest in reducing opioid-related problems, I frequently hear stories from colleagues and friends about their loved ones who either struggle with opioid addiction or have even died from opioid-related overdose. My follow-up question to them is usually: "How did it begin?" Almost every time the answer is the same: the individual experienced acute pain either from a trauma or surgery, was started on opioids by a doctor, and then couldn't quit.
My son's baseball coach, who is not in the medical field, described it perfectly. He went in for a minor back surgery and was discharged with 60 tablets of oxycodone (the opioid medicine in Percocet and Oxycontin). For the first couple of days, he had significant pain and used the pain pills. After the pain began to subside and acetaminophen and ibuprofen were sufficient, he stopped using the oxycodone. But after discontinuing the medication, he began feeling terrible, experiencing body aches, restlessness, and insomnia. He took another oxycodone and felt better. Fortunately, he had the insight to recognize what was going on: he was withdrawing from the opioid, even after taking it for only a few days. Had he continued treating his withdrawal with oxycodone, he may have become hooked. "I dodged a bullet," he told me.
The problem of adverse effects and unused opioids
This story, repeated time and again, is interesting in light of a recent study published in JAMA Surgery. The paper was a meta-analysis that combined the results of six previous studies investigating use of opioids by patients after seven different surgical procedures. In the era of the opioid epidemic, where we know that the vast majority of pills taken for non-medical reasons (e.g., abuse) are obtained from friends or family members, the results are staggering: 42% to 71% of the prescribed opioids went unused. Furthermore, 16% to 29% of patients experienced adverse effects directly attributed to the opioids.
Multiple government and public health agencies recommend discarding unused opioids. It's not safe to flush them down the toilet as they can contaminate our water supply, but most police stations and now commercial pharmacies have bins where unused medications can be safely disposed. Despite this, the study discovered that only 4% to 30% planned to dispose of the medications and only 4% to 9% planned to use a safe disposal method.
Why are opioids prescribed often and in larger amounts?
A key question is why overprescribing after surgery is occurring. I believe there are two likely explanations. The first is that surgeons, appropriately, do not want their patients to suffer from pain after an operation. The second is that, in many states, it is impossible to phone in a prescription for a controlled substance (e.g. an opioid pain medication). Therefore, a patient actually has to come back to clinic to pick up a prescription, which causes inconvenience to both the patient and the prescriber. Providing a prescription for 60 or 90 pills makes sense considering this barrier. Several states are implementing ways to provide electronic prescriptions that would make the doctor's office visit unnecessary if a refill is needed, but it will take time before most doctors can do this.
However, as the study in JAMA shows, these large amounts may be far more pills than is required. As an example, consider another intriguing study of patients being treated for an acute extremity fracture. The researchers provided patients with special pills that contained both oxycodone and a small radio transmitter that became activated in the stomach. The researchers were able to detect exactly when the opioid was taken. Patients were instructed to use up to one week of oxycodone. At follow up, the average number of pills used was eight. Most of the severe pain was gone in just three days. There was no more need for opioids than a few pills, certainly less than 15.
Here's what you can do to protect yourself and your community
How can the public protect itself? Physicians have a duty to educate about the risks and benefits of all treatments rendered, including when prescribing opioids. That unfortunately doesn't always occur. So here's my advice: if you are prescribed an opioid for acute pain, including after surgery, take all of the non-opioid pain medications permitted by your doctor as instructed (e.g. acetaminophen and ibuprofen, if not contraindicated). Add the opioid if, and only if, the pain is not bearable with the other medications. And once the pain is tolerable, stop the opioid and safely dispose of it by bringing it back to your pharmacy, if they have a disposal bin, or any DEA-recommended collection site. Finally, consider having a discussion with your doctor about the number of pills you are likely to need in the first place before the prescription is written. Being informed about safely using opioids could prevent dependence, and, ultimately, save your life.