The Evaluation of Medical Inpatients Who Are Admitted on Long-term Opioid Therapy for Chronic Pain


Individuals who are on long-term opioid therapy (LTOT) for chronic noncancer pain are frequently admitted to the hospital with acute pain, exacerbations of chronic pain, or comorbidities. Consequently, hospitalists find themselves faced with complex treatment decisions in the context of uncertainty about the effectiveness of LTOT as well as concerns about risks of overdose, opioid use disorders, and adverse events. Our multidisciplinary team sought to synthesize guideline recommendations and primary literature relevant to assessing medical inpatients on LTOT, with the objective of assisting practitioners in balancing effective pain treatment and opioid risk reduction. We identified no primary studies or guidelines specific to assessing medical inpatients on LTOT. Recommendations from outpatient guidelines on LTOT and guidelines on pain management in acute-care settings include the following: evaluate both pain and functional status, differentiate acute from chronic pain, investigate the preadmission course of opioid therapy, obtain a psychosocial history, screen for mental health conditions, screen for substance use disorders, check state prescription drug monitoring databases, order urine drug immunoassays, detect use of sedative-hypnotics, and identify medical conditions associated with increased risk of overdose and adverse events. Although approaches to assessing medical inpatients on LTOT can be extrapolated from related guidelines, observational studies, and small studies in surgical populations, more work is needed to address these critical topics for inpatients on LTOT.

© 2018 Society of Hospital Medicine

Hospitalists face complex questions about how to evaluate and treat the large number of individuals who are admitted on long-term opioid therapy (LTOT, defined as lasting 3 months or longer) for chronic noncancer pain. A recent study at one Veterans Affairs hospital, found 26% of medical inpatients were on LTOT.1 Over the last 2 decades, use of LTOT has risen substantially in the United States, including among middle-aged and older adults.2 Concurrently, inpatient hospitalizations related to the overuse of prescription opioids, including overdose, dependence, abuse, and adverse drug events, have increased by 153%.3 Individuals on LTOT can also be hospitalized for exacerbations of the opioid-treated chronic pain condition or unrelated conditions. In addition to affecting rates of hospitalization, use of LTOT is associated with higher rates of in-hospital adverse events, longer hospital stays, and higher readmission rates.1,4,5

Physicians find managing chronic pain to be stressful, are often concerned about misuse and addiction, and believe their training in opioid prescribing is inadequate.6 Hospitalists report confidence in assessing and prescribing opioids for acute pain but limited success and satisfaction with treating exacerbations of chronic pain.7 Although half of all hospitalized patients receive opioids,5 little information is available to guide the care of hospitalized medical patients on LTOT for chronic noncancer pain.8,9

Our multispecialty team sought to synthesize guideline recommendations and primary literature relevant to the assessment of medical inpatients on LTOT to assist practitioners balance effective pain treatment and opioid risk reduction. This article addresses obtaining a comprehensive pain history, identifying misuse and opioid use disorders, assessing the risk of overdose and adverse drug events, gauging the risk of withdrawal, and based on such findings, appraise indications for opioid therapy. Other authors have recently published narrative reviews on the management of acute pain in hospitalized patients with opioid dependence and the inpatient management of opioid use disorder.10,11


To identify primary literature, we searched PubMed, EMBASE, The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects, Health Economic Evaluations Database, key meeting abstracts, and hand searches. To identify guidelines, we searched PubMed, National Guidelines Clearinghouse, specialty societies’ websites, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United Kingdom National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the Canadian Medical Association, and the Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council. Search terms related to opioids and chronic pain, which was last updated in October 2016.12

We selected English-language documents on opioids and chronic pain among adults, excluding pain in the setting of procedures, labor and delivery, life-limiting illness, or specific conditions. For primary literature, we considered intervention studies of any design that addressed pain management among hospitalized medical patients. We included guidelines and specialty society position statements published after January 1, 2009, that addressed pain in the hospital setting, acute pain in any setting, or chronic pain in the outpatient setting if published by a national body. Due to the paucity of documents specific to inpatient care, we used a narrative review format to synthesize information. Dual reviewers extracted guideline recommendations potentially relevant to medical inpatients on LTOT. We also summarize relevant assessment instruments, emphasizing very brief screening instruments, which may be more likely to be used by busy hospitalists.


We did not find any primary literature specific to the assessment of pain among medical inpatients on LTOT. We identified 14 eligible guidelines and position statements (see Table 1). Three documents address pain in the hospital setting, including an “implementation guide” from the Society for Hospital Medicine.13-15 Three documents address acute pain,9,16,17 and 8 documents address LTOT for chronic noncancer pain.18-25 Table 2 lists guideline recommendations potentially relevant to inpatients on LTOT.


We grouped guideline recommendations into the following 3 categories applicable to inpatient assessment of patients on LTOT: obtaining a comprehensive pain history, identifying misuse and opioid use disorders, and assessing the risk of overdose and adverse drug events. Although we did not find recommendations that specifically spoke to assessment for opioid withdrawal and appraising indications for opioid therapy, we briefly discuss these areas as highly relevant to inpatient practice.

Obtaining a Comprehensive Pain History

Hospitalists newly evaluating patients on LTOT often face a dual challenge: deciding if the patient has an immediate indication for additional opioids and if the current long-term opioid regimen should be altered or discontinued. In general, opioids are an accepted short-term treatment for moderate to severe acute pain but their role in chronic noncancer pain is controversial. Newly released guidelines by the CDC recommend initiating LTOT as a last resort, and the Departments of Veterans Affairs and Defense guidelines recommend against initiation of LTOT.22,23

A key first step, therefore, is distinguishing between acute and chronic pain. Among patients on LTOT, pain can represent a new acute pain condition, an exacerbation of chronic pain, opioid-induced hyperalgesia, or opioid withdrawal. Acute pain is defined as an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage or described in relation to such damage.26 In contrast, chronic pain is a complex response that may not be related to actual or ongoing tissue damage, and is influenced by physiological, contextual, and psychological factors. Two acute pain guidelines and 1 chronic pain guideline recommend distinguishing acute and chronic pain,9,16,21 3 chronic pain guidelines reinforce the importance of obtaining a pain history (including timing, intensity, frequency, onset, etc),20,22,23 and 6 guidelines recommend ascertaining a history of prior pain-related treatments.9,13,14,16,20,22 Inquiring how the current pain compares with symptoms “on a good day,” what activities the patient can usually perform, and what the patient does outside the hospital to cope with pain can serve as entry into this conversation.

The standard for assessing pain intensity remains patient self-report using a validated instrument, such as the Numerical Rating Scale (Table 3).23,24,27 Among patients with chronic pain, clinically meaningful differences in pain intensity correspond to 1- to 2-point changes on these scales.27,28 Pain scores should not be the only factor used to determine when opioids are indicated because other factors are relevant and scores may not correlate with patients’ preference to receive opioid therapy.29 Along with pain intensity, 3 guidelines for hospital settings/acute pain and 4 chronic pain guidelines recommend assessing functional status.9,13,16,18,20-22 The CDC guideline endorses 3-item the “Pain average, interference with Enjoyment of life, and interference with General activity” (PEG) assessment scale 22,30 (Table 3). The instrument would need to be adapted for the hospital setting, but improvement in function, such as mobility, is a good indicator of clinical improvement among inpatients as well.

In addition to function, 5 guidelines, including 2 specific guidelines for acute pain or the hospital setting, recommend obtaining a detailed psychosocial history to identify life stressors and gain insight into the patient’s coping skills.14,16,19,20,22 Psychiatric symptoms can intensify the experience of pain or hamper coping ability. Anxiety, depression, and insomnia frequently coexist in patients with chronic pain.31 As such, 3 hospital setting/acute pain guidelines and 3 chronic pain guidelines recommend screening for mental health issues including anxiety and depression.13,14,16,20,22,23 Several depression screening instruments have been validated among inpatients,32 and there are validated single-item, self-administered instruments for both depression and anxiety (Table 3).32,33

Although obtaining a comprehensive history before making treatment decisions is ideal, some patients present in extremis. In emergency departments, some guidelines endorse prompt administration of analgesics based on patient self-report, prior to establishing a diagnosis.17 Given concerns about the growing prevalence of opioid use disorders, several states now recommend emergency medicine prescribers screen for misuse before giving opioids and avoid parenteral opioids for acute exacerbations of chronic pain.34 Treatments received in emergency departments set patients’ expectations for the care they receive during hospitalization, and hospitalists may find it necessary to explain therapies appropriate for urgent management are not intended to be sustained.

Identifying Misuse and Opioid Use Disorders

Nonmedical use of prescription opioids and opioid use disorders have more than doubled over the last decade.35 Five guidelines, including 3 specific guidelines for acute pain or the hospital setting, recommend screening for opioid misuse.13,14,16,19,23 Many states mandate practitioners assess patients for substance use disorders before prescribing controlled substances.36 Instruments to identify aberrant and risky use include the Current Opioid Misuse Measure,37 Prescription Drug Use Questionnaire,38 Addiction Behaviors Checklist,39 Screening Tool for Abuse,40 and the Self-Administered Single-Item Screening Question (Table 3).41 However, the evidence for these and other tools is limited and absent for the inpatient setting.21,42

In addition to obtaining a history from the patient, 4 guidelines specific to hospital settings/acute pain and 4 chronic pain guidelines recommend practitioners access prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs).13-16,19,21-24 PDMPs exist in all states except Missouri, and about half of states mandate practitioners check the PDMP database in certain circumstances.36 Studies examining the effects of PDMPs on prescribing are limited, but checking these databases can uncover concerning patterns including overlapping prescriptions or multiple prescribers.43 PDMPs can also confirm reported medication doses, for which patient report may be less reliable.

Two hospital/acute pain guidelines and 5 chronic pain guidelines also recommend urine drug testing, although differing on when and whom to test, with some favoring universal screening.11,20,23 Screening hospitalized patients may reveal substances not reported by patients, but medications administered in emergency departments can confound results. Furthermore, the commonly used immunoassay does not distinguish heroin from prescription opioids, nor detect hydrocodone, oxycodone, methadone, buprenorphine, or certain benzodiazepines. Chromatography/mass spectrometry assays can but are often not available from hospital laboratories. The differential for unexpected results includes substance use, self treatment of uncontrolled pain, diversion, or laboratory error.20

If concerning opioid use is identified, 3 hospital setting/acute pain specific guidelines and the CDC guideline recommend sharing concerns with patients and assessing for a substance use disorder.9,13,16,22 Determining whether patients have an opioid use disorder that meets the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, 5th Edition44 can be challenging. Patients may minimize or deny symptoms or fear that the stigma of an opioid use disorder will lead to dismissive or subpar care. Additionally, substance use disorders are subject to federal confidentiality regulations, which can hamper acquisition of information from providers.45 Thus, hospitalists may find specialty consultation helpful to confirm the diagnosis.

Assessing the Risk of Overdose and Adverse Drug Events

Oversedation, respiratory depression, and death can result from iatrogenic or self-administered opioid overdose in the hospital.5 Patient factors that increase this risk among outpatients include a prior history of overdose, preexisting substance use disorders, cognitive impairment, mood and personality disorders, chronic kidney disease, sleep apnea, obstructive lung disease, and recent abstinence from opioids.12 Medication factors include concomitant use of benzodiazepines and other central nervous system depressants, including alcohol; recent initiation of long-acting opioids; use of fentanyl patches, immediate-release fentanyl, or methadone; rapid titration; switching opioids without adequate dose reduction; pharmacokinetic drug–drug interactions; and, importantly, higher doses.12,22 Two guidelines specific to acute pain and hospital settings and 5 chronic pain guidelines recommend screening for use of benzodiazepines among patients on LTOT.13,14,16,18-20,22,21
The CDC guideline recommends careful assessment when doses exceed 50 mg of morphine equivalents per day and avoiding doses above 90 mg per day due to the heightened risk of overdose.22 In the hospital, 23% of patients receive doses at or above 100 mg of morphine equivalents per day,5 and concurrent use of central nervous system depressants is common. Changes in kidney and liver function during acute illness may impact opioid metabolism and contribute to overdose.

In addition to overdose, opioids are leading causes of adverse drug events during hospitalization.46 Most studies have focused on surgical patients reporting common opioid-related events as nausea/vomiting, pruritus, rash, mental status changes, respiratory depression, ileus, and urinary retention.47 Hospitalized patients may also exhibit chronic adverse effects due to LTOT. At least one-third of patients on LTOT eventually stop because of adverse effects, such as endocrinopathies, sleep disordered breathing, constipation, fractures, falls, and mental status changes.48 Patients may lack awareness that their symptoms are attributable to opioids and are willing to reduce their opioid use once informed, especially when alternatives are offered to alleviate pain.

Gauging the Risk of Withdrawal

Sudden discontinuation of LTOT by patients, practitioners, or intercurrent events can have unanticipated and undesirable consequences. Withdrawal is not only distressing for patients; it can be dangerous because patients may resort to illicit use, diversion of opioids, or masking opioid withdrawal with other substances such as alcohol. The anxiety and distress associated with withdrawal, or anticipatory fear about withdrawal, can undermine therapeutic alliance and interfere with processes of care. Reviewed guidelines did not offer recommendations regarding withdrawal risk or specific strategies for avoidance. There is no specific prior dose threshold or degree of reduction in opioids that puts patients at risk for withdrawal, in part due to patients’ beliefs, expectations, and differences in response to opioid formulations. Symptoms of opioid withdrawal have been compared to a severe case of influenza, including stomach cramps, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, tremor and muscle twitching, sweating, restlessness, yawning, tachycardia, anxiety and irritability, bone and joint aches, runny nose, tearing, and piloerection.49 The Clinical Opiate Withdrawal Scale (COWS)49 and the Clinical Institute Narcotic Assessment51 are clinician-administered tools to assess opioid withdrawal similar to the Clinical Institute Withdrawal Assessment of Alcohol Scale, Revised,52 to monitor for withdrawal in the inpatient setting.

Synthesizing and Appraising the Indications for Opioid Therapy

For medical inpatients who report adequate pain control and functional outcomes on current doses of LTOT, without evidence of misuse, the pragmatic approach is to continue the treatment plan established by the outpatient clinician rather than escalating or tapering the dose. If opioids are prescribed at discharge, 3 hospital setting/acute pain guidelines and the CDC guideline recommend prescribing the lowest effective dose of immediate release opioids for 3 to 7 days.13,15,16,22

When patients exhibit evidence of an opioid use disorder, have a history of serious overdose, or are experiencing intolerable opioid-related adverse events, the hospitalist may conclude the harms of LTOT outweigh the benefits. For these patients, opioid treatment in the hospital can be aimed at preventing withdrawal, avoiding the perpetuation of inappropriate opioid use, managing other acute medical conditions, and communicating with outpatient prescribers. For patients with misuse, discontinuing opioids is potentially harmful and may be perceived as punitive. Hospitalists should consider consulting addiction or mental health specialists to assist with formulating a plan of care. However, such specialists may not be available in smaller or rural hospitals and referral at discharge can be challenging.53

Beginning to taper opioids during the hospitalization can be appropriate when patients are motivated and can transition to an outpatient provider who will supervise the taper. In ambulatory settings, tapers of 10% to 30% every 2 to 5 days are generally well tolerated.54 If patients started tapering opioids under supervision of an outpatient provider prior to hospitalization; ideally, the taper can be continued during hospitalization with close coordination with the outpatient clinician.

Unfortunately, many patients on LTOT are admitted with new sources of acute pain and or exacerbations of chronic pain, and some have concomitant substance use disorders; we plan to address the management of these complex situations in future work.

Despite the frequency with which patients on LTOT are hospitalized for nonsurgical stays and the challenges inherent in evaluating pain and assessing the possibility of substance use disorders, no formal guidelines or empirical research studies pertain to this population. Guidelines in this review were developed for hospital settings and acute pain in the absence of LTOT, and for outpatient care of patients on LTOT. We also included a nonsystematic synthesis of literature that varied in relevance to medical inpatients on LTOT.


Although inpatient assessment and treatment of patients with LTOT remains an underresearched area, we were able to extract and synthesize recommendations from 14 guideline statements and apply these to the assessment of patients with LTOT in the inpatient setting. Hospitalists frequently encounter patients on LTOT for chronic nonmalignant pain and are faced with complex decisions about the effectiveness and safety of LTOT; appropriate patient assessment is fundamental to making these decisions. Key guideline recommendations relevant to inpatient assessment include assessing both pain and functional status, differentiating acute from chronic pain, ascertaining preadmission pain treatment history, obtaining a psychosocial history, screening for mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, screening for substance use disorders, checking state prescription drug monitoring databases, ordering urine drug immunoassays, detecting use of sedative-hypnotics, identifying medical conditions associated with increased risk of overdose and adverse events, and appraising the potential benefits and harms of opioid therapy. Although approaches to assessing medical inpatients on LTOT can be extrapolated from outpatient guidelines, observational studies, and small studies in surgical populations, more work is needed to address these critical topics for inpatients on LTOT.


Dr. Herzig was funded by grant number K23AG042459 from the National Institute on Aging. The funding organization had no involvement in any aspect of the study, including design and conduct of the study; collection, management, analysis, and interpretation of the data; and preparation, review, or approval of the manuscript. All other authors have no relevant conflicts of interest with the work.


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