Opioids After Joint Replacement Surgery: Are You at Risk for Long-Term Use?

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A small, but significant, portion of patients who receive prescriptions for opioid pain killers after undergoing joint replacement surgery will begin using the drugs long term, according to a study published online last year in the journal Osteoarthritis and Cartilage.Knowing which patients are most likely to become persistent opioid users could allow physicians to prescribe alternative therapies for managing postoperative pain.

By studying a large database of insurance claims, the researchers found that 7.6 percent of patients who underwent hip or knee replacement surgery became persistent users of opioid drugs such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, meaning they filled at least one prescription for opioids every month in the year following surgery (although its possible some used the drugs, before and after surgery, for conditions other than knee or hip arthritis).

Prior frequent use of opioids was the biggest risk factor for becoming a persistent user after surgery. Women, smokers, and people who had previously used benzodiazepines were also more likely to fill multiple prescriptions for opioids, as were patients with rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, migraine headaches, and certain other conditions.

Opioids are highly addictive. Ironically, long-term use of these drugs may worsen pain after joint replacement surgery. If you are having a joint replaced, ask your doctor about safe approaches to pain control.