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Pharmacoeconomics. 2019 Mar;37(3):419-433. doi: 10.1007/s40273-018-0753-z.

Opioid Use is Associated with Higher Severity-Adjusted Episode Costs in Patients with Conservatively Managed Degenerative Joint Disease of the Back and Neck.

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Clinical Data Services and Analytics, UnitedHealthcare, 9700 Health Care Lane, Minnetonka, MN, 55343, USA.
Clinical Data Services and Analytics, UnitedHealthcare, 381 Winter Bluff Drive, Fenton, MO, USA.
Aetna, 135 W. 1st St., Santa Ana, CA, USA.
Clinical Data Services and Analytics, UnitedHealthcare, 378 Broad Rock Road, Wakefield, RI, USA.
, Linden, NJ, USA.
Clinical Data Services and Analytics, UnitedHealthcare, 9700 Health Care Lane, Minnetonka, MN, 55343, USA.



Opioid use and misuse are urgent health issues. Previous studies suggest that opioid use increases healthcare resource use but severity adjustment is lacking.


The objective of this study was to evaluate the severity-adjusted cost difference between opioid users and non-users among patients with conservatively managed degenerative joint disease of the spine within a large commercial health plan population in the United States.


A retrospective observational study was performed using a national commercial database covering 531,819 patients aged 18-64 years with non-surgically managed cervical or lumbar degenerative spine disease during 2015-6. Patients were grouped based on whether there was evidence for an opioid prescription. Costs for the opioids themselves were excluded. Severity adjustment, on an ascending integer scale from 1 to 4, was performed based on member demographics, clinical comorbidities, disease progression indicators, and complications.


Median episode costs for patients given opioids were approximately twice that for patients not given opioids after severity adjustment. For patients with episodes in both years and stable severity, patients with new prescriptions for opioids in 2016 doubled their median 2015 costs, and patients who had opioids discontinued in 2016 had a 60% cost reduction. Episode costs showed a nearly linear increase based on the length of time taking opioids, as well as with a higher average daily dose. Cost increases with opioids were broad across service categories even when comparing within the same severity-adjusted episodes of care.


The data suggest a clinically and statistically significant increase in episode costs associated with opioid use for degenerative joint disease of the spine, both within and between patients, and higher costs with a longer duration of opioid use as well as with higher daily dosages. Given the health consequences surrounding the overuse of opioids, concerted efforts to move towards a non-opioid pain control strategy are needed.


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