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Chronic Pain and Opioid-Related Death

April 01, 2018

Opioid medications have been used for quite some time to help people cope with pain. Reasons for taking opioid medications range anywhere from acute injury to cancer diagnoses. Although these medications are useful for controlling pain, they are also very prone to addiction. As we have seen over the last several years, deaths related to opioid addiction are on the rise.

An article in the American Journal of Psychiatry points to the use of opioid medications in cases of chronic pain as a major cause of opioid-related deaths. The study cited in the article looked at 13,089 opioid deaths in Medicaid patients under the age of 65. 

Out of the 13,089 people in the study, 61.5% were diagnosed with a chronic pain condition in the year preceding their death. Of those 61.5%, 59.3% were diagnosed with back pain, 24.5% with headaches, and 6.9% with neuropathies. Additionally, those with a chronic pain diagnosis were twice as likely as those without to have experienced a non-fatal overdose in the 12 months leading up to surgery. 

The study also looked at the likelihood of being diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder and being prescribed psychotropic medication. It turns out that the chronic pain group was 18% more likely than the group without a chronic pain diagnosis to have been given a psychiatric disorder diagnosis as well. The combination of opioids and benzodiazepines has been shown to increase risk of death.

Back pain, headaches and neuropathy are conditions frequently encountered by physical therapists. Physical therapists have the education and background to help patients that are facing these maladies take control of their pain and improve their quality of life. Given the high rate of death associated with opioids and chronic pain, physical therapy may provide a much safer option in dealing with chronic pain conditions and help alleviate the need for opioid medication.


Olfson M, Wall M, Wang S, Crystal S, Blanco CAm J Psychiatry. 2017 Nov 28: appiajp201717070808. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.17070808. Service Use Preceding Opioid-Related Fatality.


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