The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention developed guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. It offers guidance to the clinician regarding the safe and effective prescribing of opioids and assistance in managing chronic pain. This guideline focuses on patients over 18 who are seen in the primary care setting. The guideline focuses on chronic pain that does not involve end-of-life care, active cancer treatment, or palliative care.
This guideline is meant to help primary care clinicians deal with the 11 percent of adult patients that deal with daily pain (Dowell et al., 2016). It was developed partly because primary care clinicians reported insufficient training in opioid prescribing and concern regarding addiction.
The guideline focuses on three main areas:
- Determining when to start/continue opioids for chronic pain includes looking at treatment goals, discussing the benefits/risks of therapy, and the utilization of not only opioid therapy but nonopioid therapy and nonpharmacological therapy
- The selection, duration, dosage, follow-up, and discontinuation of opioids
- Assessing the risk and addressing the harms of opioid use includes using methods to evaluate and reduce risks. It discusses the use of urine drug testing, the prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP), treatment of opioid use disorder and precautions regarding co-prescriptions of benzodiazepines
The first recommendation suggests that chronic pain should be managed primarily with nonpharmacologic and nonopioid pharmacologic therapies. Opioid therapy should be considered only when the risks outweigh the potential benefit in pain control and functional improvement. When opiates are used, they should be combined with nonopioid and nonpharmacological therapy.
Appropriate non-pharmacological therapies include weight loss, physical therapy, exercise, psychological therapies, and selected intervention procedures (joint injections). Nonopioid pharmacotherapy may include NSAIDs, acetaminophen, cyclo-oxygenase (COX)-2 Inhibitors, some anticonvulsants, and some antidepressants. The use of nonopioid pharmacotherapy is associated with a significantly reduced overdose risk.
The second recommendation suggests that before initiating opioid therapy in chronic pain patients, it is important to establish realistic goals for pain and function. Also, patients should be educated that opioid therapy would be discontinued if the risks are deemed greater than the benefits. Opioid prescriptions are only continued when there is a meaningful improvement in function and pain, and the benefit outweighs the risk to patient safety.
Research suggests that long-term use of opioids is associated with serious risks and that risk is dose-dependent. Research shows weak evidence that opioid therapy beyond six months results in clinically significant pain relief or clinically significant improvements in quality of life. Many patients who use long-term opiate therapy discontinue therapy due to adverse effects or inadequate pain control. Because of these facts, it is hard to predict which patient will have greater benefits than harms when receiving chronic opiate therapy.
When opioid therapy is initiated, the prescriber should determine how effectiveness will be evaluated. Also, treatment goals should be established with the patient before starting therapy. Goals should include relief in both pain and improvement in function. Conditions that lead to progressive functional impairment or injuries such as spinal cord trauma may have a primary goal of pain relief as opposed to improvements in physical function. The social and emotional well-being of patients should also be considered.
Functional goals may include returning to work, attending specific recreational activities, walking around the block, or taking the dog for a walk. Assessing for depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions is an important aspect of managing the whole patient. Generally, if pain and function are not improved on opioid therapy, tapering or discontinuing should be strongly considered.
A written agreement should also be used that discusses how opioids will be prescribed and monitored and how they will be tapered or discontinued. Situations, where opioids should be tapered or discontinued include when opioids are not needed, side effects become too severe, or treatment goals are not met (Dowell et al., 2016).
The third recommendation suggests that providers should discuss the risks and benefits of opioid therapy both before and during treatment. Also, the responsibilities of both the patient and the clinician should be laid out before and during therapy.
Key teaching points:
- Functionally improvement is the main goal, even if pain still is present.
- The use of opioids generally does not improve pain and function in the long term, but opioids may reduce pain in the short term.
- Discuss common side effects include nausea, vomiting, mental status changes, constipation, dry mouth, drowsiness, tolerance, physical and psychologic dependence, and withdrawal symptoms upon ceasing opioids.
- Discuss potentially fatal respiratory depression, especially with higher doses or when used with other depressants such as benzodiazepines.
- Chronic opioid use may lead to a lifelong opioid use disorder.
- Increase fluid intake and fiber to reduce the risk of constipation.
- Opioids reduce the ability to operate motor vehicles safely.
- Discuss that the need for the opioid will be periodically reviewed with consideration given to reducing or discontinuing the opioid.
- Discuss the importance of not sharing prescriptions among family or friends.
- Discuss safe storage, such as in a locked location.
- Discuss the safe disposal of controlled substances.
- Discuss monitoring that will be used, including urine drug testing and the use of the prescription drug monitoring program.
- Consider discussing the use of naloxone.
Recommendation 4 suggests that when starting opiates for chronic pain, immediate-release opioids are recommended over longer-acting medications. Long-acting opioids are associated with a higher risk of overdose when compared to immediate-acting opioids.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported in 2014 that extended-release or long-acting opioid pain medications should be used only when pain is severe enough to necessitate daily, around-the-clock, long-term opiate treatment when other options are ineffective not tolerated or would not offer adequate pain management. They should not be used on an as-needed basis.
Other key points under this recommendation include:
- Certain medications are only appropriate for opioid-tolerant patients. An opioid-tolerant patient is someone who has taken 60 mg daily of oral morphine, 30 mg daily of oral oxycodone, or equianalgesic dosages of other opioids for at least one week.
- There is not enough evidence to determine if taking immediate-release opioids for breakthrough pain when using ER/LA opioids is safe outside palliative care, end-of-life care, and active cancer.
- Using abuse-deterrent technologies makes it more difficult and less rewarding to manipulate opioids. While they can still be abused, it is more difficult to do so. The abuse-deterrent technology does not prevent unintentional overdose, and the Center for Disease Control document does not make recommendations regarding abuse-deterrent formulations.
- Methadone has been found to have the highest number of overdose deaths compared to other opioids prescribed for chronic pain. Methadone also has cardiac complications such as QT prolongation and cardiac arrhythmias. Also, methadone has a variable and long half-life, which can be complicated when peak respiratory depression occurs. There is more interindividual variability in the pharmacodynamics of methadone when compared to other opioids. Methadone should only be used by prescribers familiar with the unique pharmacodynamics and willing to monitor patients on it closely.
- The pharmacodynamics of transdermal fentanyl is also complex. A gradual increase in serum concentration is noted over the first 72 hours. Absorption can be variable based on factors such as external heat.
- Opioid treatment should not be initiated with ER/LA dosing, and this type of medication should not be used for intermittent use. They should be considered only in those with severe pain who have used intermediate-release opioids daily for at least seven days.
Recommendation five suggests that when starting opiates, the lowest effective dosage should be prescribed. Extreme caution should be used when opiates are prescribed. The risks versus benefits should be reevaluated with dosages above 50 morphine milligram equivalents (MME)/day. If dosages above 90 MME/day are used, careful justification should be documented.
The benefits of high-dose opioids are not well established, and higher doses are associated with more harms such as opioid use disorder, overdose, and motor vehicle accidents.
While lower doses of opiates reduce the risk, there is no dose threshold that overdose risk is eliminated. Dosage above 90 MME/day is linked to a high risk of overdose, with lower dosages associated with less risk. According to the CDC document, when dosages are pushed to over 50 MME/day, the risk of overdose increases without improving pain control or functional benefit.
When increasing the dosages of opioids, it should be done in the smallest amount possible to reduce overdose risk. There is no firm evidence on how long to wait before increasing dosages, but waiting for at least five half-lives before increasing the dosage has been recommended. Also, extreme caution should be used in individuals over 65 or those with kidney or liver insufficiency.
When dosages are increased above 50 MME/day, the prescriber should:
- Assess if the opiate is helping to meet the treatment goals
- Increase the frequency of follow-ups
- Consider providing naloxone
- Provide overdose education
Even patients who have been on high doses for many years should be offered the chance to wean their dosage. The patient should be educated that recent clinical evidence suggests that patients on high doses of opiates are at higher risk for overdose, and the provider should offer the patient an opportunity to wean dosage slowly if indicated.
Recommendation 6 suggests that when opioids are used for acute pain, the provider should use the lowest dose of immediate-release opioids and provide a quantity that is no more than the expected duration the patient needs. Three days or less is often enough, and more than seven days is rarely indicated.
Some research suggests that for back pain managed in a primary care setting, the use of opioid medications results in a large reduction in pain until the fourth day of treatment. After that, smaller pain reductions are noted. Opioids should not be prescribed “just in case.”
Recommendation 7 suggests that patients using opioids for chronic pain should have the benefits and harms evaluated within one to four weeks of beginning therapy or when there is a dose increase. After that, the benefits and harms should be evaluated at least every three months. If the benefits do not outweigh the harms, the provider should consider tapering opioids to a lower dosage or discontinuing opioids.
Individuals who continue opioid therapy for three months or more are at increased risk of developing opioid use disorder. Therefore, frequent follow-up in the first three months may help reduce the risk of opioid use disorder. Another argument for close follow-up is that risk of overdose is high during the first two weeks of treatment with ER/LA opioid use. The risk is especially high with methadone or fentanyl.
Research suggests that individuals who do not have pain relief from opioids at one month will likely not have pain relief at six months. Therefore, assessment within the first month is important to determine who will likely benefit from opioid therapy. Frequent assessments should reduce the risk of complications of long-term opioid use such as overdose, opioid use disorder, and other injuries.
Certain individuals are at higher risk for opioid use disorder or overdose, and this includes individuals with a history of a substance use disorder, individuals with depression or another mental health condition, patients taking greater than 50 MME/day, those with a history of overdose, and those taking other central nervous system depressant medications. These individuals should be evaluated more frequently. If these individuals are noted to be without benefit from the opiate, strong consideration should be given to reducing the dose or discontinuing the opiate.
When tapering opioids, the dose should be reduced weekly by 10-50%. In individuals with a severe adverse event, such as an overdose, rapid discontinuation of 2-3 weeks could be utilized. Reducing dosages slowly may be appropriate for individuals who have utilized opioids for extended periods. Reducing as slowly as 10% a month may be utilized in individuals who have been taking opioids for years.
A slow reduction in opioid doses reduces the signs of opioid withdrawal such as anxiety, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, tremor, increased heart rate, insomnia, drug craving, and abdominal pain.
Recommendation number 8 suggests that opioid-related harm risk factors should be assessed before and during opioid therapy. Also, clinicians should implement strategies to reduce risk in individuals at high risk. These strategies would include individuals on greater than 50 MME per day, those with a history of an overdose, a history of a substance use disorder, or those on concurrent benzodiazepines.
One strategy to reduce the risk of overdose death includes prescribing naloxone. Naloxone can reverse the opioid when there is severe respiratory depression. Naloxone can potentially bring on acute withdrawal symptoms in patients who are physically dependent on opioids.
Other factors that place patients at high risk for overdose include sleep-related breathing disorders such as sleep apnea or congestive heart failure, pregnancy, mental health issues, renal or liver insufficiency, and those greater than age 65.
Pregnancy puts both mother and fetus at risk. Opiate use in pregnancy increases the risk of poor fetal growth, birth defects, stillbirth, and preterm delivery. It can also lead to neonatal opioid withdrawal. When prescribing opioids for anyone of childbearing age, it is important to discuss the possible consequences of opioids during pregnancy.
Prescribing medication, including opioids, can be challenging in older adults. Some concerns include reduced renal or hepatic function, higher risk of respiratory depression, increased risk of side effects including cognitive impairment, more comorbid medical problems, polypharmacy, higher risk of falls, and constipation.
Extra caution should be utilized in individuals with mental health problems when prescribing opioids. This group of individuals is at higher risk for opioid use disorder and increased risk for drug overdose (especially in those with depression). For individuals with significant psychiatric instability or high suicide risk, opioid therapy should not be initiated. Also, individuals who have been prescribed benzodiazepines should very cautiously be prescribed opiates, if at all.
Individuals being prescribed opioids should be screened for substance use disorder. The patient should be asked about drug and alcohol use. Also, the prescriber should use the prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) database before prescribing. For individuals with a substance use disorder obtaining outside consultation with a substance use disorder specialist or pain specialist regarding pain management is recommended.
Recommendation number 9 suggests that the clinician review the PDMP database to determine previous/current opioid prescriptions and other medications that may interact and place the patient at higher risk for overdose. The clinician should review this data at a minimum every three months, as often as every prescription is written.
Research is limited on the benefits of PDMPs, but evidence suggests that individuals who received opioid prescriptions from multiple prescribers and high doses are at the highest risk for overdose. The PDMP can help detect these situations.
Providers should not dismiss patients from their practice based on data from these databases. Doing so has the potential to have negative health outcomes. This opportunity allows the provider to intervene to reduce the risk of overdose by providing interventions such as education, considering alternative therapies, or prescribing naloxone.
Recommendation number 10 suggests that when prescribing opioids for chronic pain, urine drug testing should be used before therapy and at least once a year. This testing will ensure that the patient is taking the prescribed medications and that there are no illicit drugs in the patient’s system.
The use of other controlled substances increases the risk of overdose. Urine drug testing has the potential to identify these patients and reduce risk. Urine drug testing also can determine when patients are not utilizing prescriptions as prescribed, which may point to diversion or side effects that limit compliance.
While urine drug testing should be done before starting opioid therapy, there is disagreement on how frequently testing should be done during long-term therapy. It should be done at least once a year. In high-risk individuals, more frequent testing is likely indicated.
Patients should be educated that the purpose of drug testing is to improve patient safety. Before testing, the provider should ask about the use of other drugs or medications and if there might be any unexpected results. The clinician should be prepared for unanticipated results and have a plan for dealing with them. Unexpected results should be discussed with the patient to determine if there is a logical explanation. If the unexpected results (for example, negative for a prescribed drug or positive for a random drug) are not explained, then confirmatory testing should occur.
Confirmed unexpected results can lead to one of the following outcomes.
- Modification of the pain management strategy
- More frequent evaluations
- Tapering/stopping the opioids. When testing for expected medications is repeatedly negative, then abrupt discontinuation is appropriate (as the patient is not taking the medication)
- More frequent re-evaluation
- Giving naloxone
- Referral for substance use disorder treatment
- Clinicians should not remove the patient from care due to an unexpected urine drug test. This removal is a safety measure as the patient could withdraw, obtain medication from another source, or even start heroin. It could also be construed as patient abandonment. Lastly, it may miss a chance to get the patient into treatment for substance abuse disorder.
Recommendation 11 suggests avoiding prescribing an opioid and benzodiazepine together. This combination reduces respiratory drive and significantly increases the risk of overdose. The recommendation is not an ultimatum to never prescribe these two agents together but should be done rarely and with extreme consideration. For example, a patient who has been on a long-term, low-dose benzodiazepine and develops severe acute pain may be a candidate for low-dose opiate medication.
Other medications that suppress the central nervous system should be avoided in those on opiates. These may include sedatives, hypnotics, muscle relaxants, some antidepressants, and sedating antihistamines.
Recommendation number 12 recommends using an evidence-based treatment in those with opioid use disorder, which may include medication-assisted treatment (MAT) with behavioral therapy.
Points discussed under this recommendation include:
- Opioid dependence is estimated to be present between 3-26 percent of primary care patients on opioids for chronic pain. MAT is effective in preventing relapse in those with opioid use disorder.
- MAT can be accomplished with buprenorphine or methadone and, in some cases, naltrexone. Naltrexone blocks opioid effects and can be given daily oral therapy or monthly injections.
- Providers should be aware of community resources available to help patients get treatment for opioid use disorder.
- MAT in pregnant women with opioid use disorder improves maternal outcomes. Treatment should be with buprenorphine or methadone, not naltrexone.
The CDC guidelines aim to enhance the communication between patients and providers regarding the risks and benefits of opioid treatment in chronic pain. It also looks to reduce the risks of long-term opioid therapy and improvement.