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Studies reveal obesity and opioid prescriptions association

Obesity and opioid prescriptions - Patients with higher BMIs were up to 158% more likely to use prescription opioids long-term and that 27% of long-term opioid prescriptions from 2000 to 2015 were attributable to higher BMIs.

Two new studies from the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) shed light on the relationship between obesity and the use of prescription opioids in the United States. One study reported that joint pain, back pain, injury, and muscle/nerve pain, which prior studies have linked with obesity, emerged as important types of pain in explaining excess prescription opioid use among adults with obesity.

This study, ‘Obesity and Incident Prescription Opioid Use in the U.S., 2000–2015’, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, finds that patients with higher BMIs were up to 158% more likely to use prescription opioids long-term, and that 27% of long-term opioid prescriptions from 2000 to 2015 were attributable to higher BMIs.

"Research on the opioid crisis to date has focused heavily on the supply-side factors that increased access to opioids," said Dr Andrew Stokes, assistant professor of global health at BUSPH, who led both studies.

"Our studies offer new evidence for policymakers to consider how addressing the roots of this crisis will require attention to the underlying sources of demand for pain relief, including obesity through its association with pain."

Stokes and colleagues used data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey to report on 89,629 adults between the ages of 30 and 84 years old who had never been prescribed opioids when first surveyed. They then analysed the incidence of long-term (approximately 10 months or longer) use of prescription opioids. The team found that patients with higher BMIs were more likely to use opioids long-term, ranging from a 24% increased likelihood for those with BMIs considered ‘overweight’ to a 158% increased likelihood for those with BMIs in the ‘obese III’ range. Joint pain, back pain, injury, and muscle/nerve pain were commonly identified as reasons for opioid prescriptions.

The second study, ‘Association of Obesity With Prescription Opioids for Painful Conditions in Patients Seeking Primary Care in the US’, published in JAMA Open Network, examined the pain conditions underlying this increased likelihood of opioid prescriptions for people with higher BMIs. This study finds that osteoarthritis and other joint disorders were the two reasons for an opioid prescription most strongly associated with obesity. Together, osteoarthritis, other joint disorders, and back disorders accounted for more than half of the difference in opioid prescriptions by obesity.

The JAMA Open Network study is the first in a collaboration between BUSPH and athenahealth, supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with Stokes and colleagues drawing from the multipayer electronic health record data in athenahealth's network of over 60 million patients receiving care from more than 120,000 health professionals across the United States.

For this study, the researchers used anonymized data from 565,930 patients who were between 34 and 64 years old in 2016 and had a BMI measurement recorded during that year. They then identified any opioid prescriptions for these patients in the year before or after their BMI measurement, as well as any related pain diagnoses.

After adjusting for age, sex, race/ethnicity, urbanicity, and other factors, the researchers found that patients with BMIs considered ‘overweight’ or ‘having obese’ were more likely to be prescribed opioids than patients with BMIs in the ‘normal’ range. The associations were particularly strong for opioid prescriptions related to joint and back pain, suggesting that these conditions play a significant role in increasing demand for pain management among patients with obesity.

"Policy efforts are urgently needed to regulate the obesogenic environment in this country," explained Dielle Lundberg, a research fellow in the Department of Global Health at BUSPH and co-author of both studies. "When people are denied access to affordable, healthy food and to the sort of built environments that promote physical activity and health across the life course, obesity is more likely to occur. The results of both studies suggest that through obesity, such environments can also increase pain and create future demand for prescription opioids."

"These data also highlight the urgent need for better pain management approaches and options for millions of Americans," said Dr Tuhina Neogi, professor of epidemiology at BUSPH, professor of rheumatology at the Boston University School of Medicine, chief of rheumatology at Boston Medical Center, and senior author of the JAMA Open Network study. "The lack of sufficient medication options, woeful under-utilisation of physical therapy (which is well-supported by high-quality evidence for these conditions), and challenges in supporting weight loss efforts have led to prescription of opioids in management of painful musculoskeletal conditions where little evidence exists to support their use."

Further information

Access the American Journal of Preventative Medicine

Access the JAMA Open Network study paper

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