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Course # 91412 • Prescription Opioids: Risk Management and Strategies for Safe Use


An unemployed man, 64 years of age, is brought to an emergency department by ambulance, after his wife returned from work to find him lying on the couch, difficult to arouse and incoherent. He has a past history of hypertension, diabetes (non-insulin dependent), mild chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and chronic back and shoulder pain, for which he has been prescribed hydrocodone/acetaminophen for many years. His wife reports that while he seemed his usual self when she left for work that morning, he had, in recent weeks, been more withdrawn socially, less active, and complained of greater discomfort from the back and shoulder pain. She knows little about his actual medication usage and expresses concern that he may have been taking more than the prescribed amount of "pain medicine."

On evaluation, the patient is somnolent and arouses to stimulation but is non-communicative and unable to follow commands. His blood pressure is normal, he is afebrile, and there are no focal neurologic deficits. Oxygen saturation, serum glucose, and routine laboratory studies (blood counts and metabolic profile) are normal except for mild elevation in blood urea nitrogen (BUN) and creatinine; the urine drug screen is negative except for opioids. Additional history from the family indicates that the patient has been admitted to other hospitals twice in the past three years with a similar presentation and recovered rapidly each time "without anything being found."

Following admission, the patient remains stable-to-improved over the next 12 to 18 hours. By the following day, he is awake and conversant and looks comfortable. On direct questioning, he reports recent symptoms of depression but no suicidal ideation. The patient describes an increased preoccupation with his pain syndrome, difficulty sleeping at night, and little physical activity during the day, in part because of physical discomfort. He is vague about his medication regimen and admits to taking "occasional" extra doses of hydrocodone for pain relief.

The family is instructed to bring in all his pill bottles from home, which they do. In addition to the hydrocodone prescribed by his primary care physician, there is a recent refill of a prescription for the medication given to the patient at the time of his last hospital discharge six months earlier.


A full evaluation, including radiographic studies and consultation with psychiatry and physical therapy, is completed. The working diagnosis for the patient's acute illness is toxic encephalopathy caused by the sedative side effects of opioid medication on the CNS. It is explained that the combination of his advancing age and diabetes likely reduced the efficiency of his kidneys in clearing the medication and its metabolites, making him more susceptible to CNS sedation. It is noted that the patient and his wife have little understanding of the rationale, proper use and safeguards, potential side effects, and limited effectiveness of opioid use for chronic pain.

In addition, the patient is diagnosed with poorly controlled chronic pain syndrome secondary to osteoarthritis and degenerative disc disease; exacerbating factors include deconditioning and reactive depression. The use of an opioid analgesic, at least for the near term, is considered appropriate, if dosed properly, monitored closely, and integrated into a comprehensive, multidisciplinary plan that includes treatment of depression and the use of adjunctive, nonpharmacologic modalities of care. In the setting of possible early diabetic nephropathy, the option of utilizing an NSAID, except for very brief periods of breakthrough pain, is not considered to be a safe option.

At discharge, and in consultation with his primary care physician, a written treatment and management plan addressing all aspects of the patient's care is presented to the patient and his wife for discussion and consent. Among the key issues addressed are:

  • Goals: Improvement in subjective pain experience; improved function of daily living manifested by regular walking exercise and improved social interaction with family and friends; relief of depression; and in the long-term, anticipated withdrawal of opioid medication and resumption of part-time work and/or volunteer community activity

  • Outpatient physical therapy and back exercise program to increase core muscular strength, improve flexibility, reduce pain, and increase exercise tolerance

  • Patient and family counseling regarding the safe use, dosage regulation, side effects, and proper disposal of opioid medication

  • Joint patient-physician responsibilities as regards to regular follow-up, monitoring of goals and treatment effectiveness, avoidance of "doctor-shopping," and assent to a single provider for prescription medication


On follow-up six weeks after discharge, the patient is noticeably improved. He reports that he feels stronger and is sleeping better. His affect is brighter, and he is getting out more. He has maintained his physical therapy and exercise routine and is compliant with his medication. Though he still has pain, it is noticeably less and he is coping better. He and his wife are encouraged by his progress, particularly in regard to his improved functional status.

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