Practice Alert

Opioids for chronic pain: The CDC’s 12 recommendations

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued 12 recommendations to help clinicians prescribe an optimal and safe course of treatment for patients.



Earlier this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a clinical practice guideline aimed at decreasing opioid use in the treatment of chronic pain.1 It developed this guideline in response to the increasing problem of opioid abuse and opioid-related mortality in the United States.

The CDC notes that an estimated 1.9 million people abused or were dependent on prescription opioid pain medication in 2013.1 Between 1999 and 2014, more than 165,000 people in the United States died from an overdose of opioid pain medication, with that rate increasing markedly in the past decade.1 In 2011, an estimated 420,000 emergency department visits were related to the abuse of narcotic pain relievers.2

While the problem of increasing opioid-related abuse and deaths has been apparent for some time, effective interventions have been elusive. Evidence remains sparse on the benefits and harms of long-term opioid therapy for chronic pain, except for those at the end of life. Evidence has been insufficient to determine long-term benefits of opioid therapy vs no opioid therapy, although the potential for harms from high doses of opioids are documented. There is not much evidence comparing nonpharmacologic and non-opioid pharmacologic treatments with long-term opioid therapy.

This lack of an evidence base is reflected in the CDC guideline. Of the guideline’s 12 recommendations, not one has high-level supporting evidence and only one has even moderate-level evidence behind it. Four recommendations are supported by low-level evidence, and 7 by very-low-level evidence. Yet 11 of the 12 are given an A recommendation, meaning that the guideline panel feels that most patients should receive this course of action.

Methodology used to create the guideline

The guideline committee used a modified GRADE approach (Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development, and Evaluation) to develop the guideline. It is the same system the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices adopted to assess and make recommendations on vaccines.3 The system’s classification of levels of evidence and recommendation categories are described in FIGURE 1.1

The modified GRADE system's recommendation categories and types of evidence image

The committee started by assessing evidence with a report on the long-term effectiveness of opioids for chronic pain, produced by the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality in 2014;4 it then augmented that report by performing an updated search for new evidence published since the report came out.5 The committee then conducted a “contextual evidence review”6 on the following 4 areas:

  1. the effectiveness of nonpharmacologic (cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise therapy, interventional treatments, multimodal pain treatment) and non-opioid pharmacologic treatments (acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, antidepressants, anticonvulsants)
  2. the benefits and harms of opioid therapy
  3. clinician and patient values and preferences related to opioids and medication risks, benefits, and use
  4. resource allocation, including costs and economic analyses.

The guideline wording indicates that, for this contextual analysis, the committee used a rapid systematic review methodology, in part because of time constraints given the imperative to produce a guideline to address a pressing problem, and because of a recognition that evidence on the questions would be scant and not of high quality.1 The 12 recommendations are categorized under 3 main headings.

Determining when to initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain

1. Nonpharmacologic therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred for chronic pain. Consider opioid therapy only if you anticipate that benefits for both pain and function will outweigh risks to the patient. If opioids are used, combine them as appropriate with nonpharmacologic therapy and non-opioid pharmacologic therapy. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 3)

Review your state's prescription drug monitoring program to determine whether a patient is receiving opioid dosages, or dangerous combinations, that increase the risk for overdose.2. Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, establish treatment goals with the patient, including realistic goals for pain and function, and consider how therapy will be discontinued if the benefits do not outweigh the risks. Continue opioid therapy only if there is clinically meaningful improvement in pain and function that outweighs risks to patient safety. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 4)

3. Before starting opioid therapy, and periodically during its course, discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy and patient and clinician responsibilities for managing therapy. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 3)

Opioid selection, dosage, duration, follow-up, and discontinuation

4. When starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release/long-acting (ER/LA) agents. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 4)

5. When starting opioids, prescribe the lowest effective dosage. Use caution when prescribing opioids at any dosage; carefully reassess the evidence for individual benefits and risks when increasing the dosage to ≥50 morphine milligram equivalents (MME)/d; and avoid increasing the dosage to ≥90 MME/d (or carefully justify such a decision, if made). (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 3)

When starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release/long-acting agents.6. Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are used for acute pain, prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids at a quantity no greater than is needed for the expected duration of pain severe enough to require opioids. Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than 7 days will rarely be needed. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 4)


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