Can opioids really help injured workers get back to work sooner?
The relationship between opioids and the number of Americans in the workplace is looking increasingly complicated.
America’s opioid addiction crisis is devastating families and costing the country billions of dollars. And yet when used to treat pain appropriately, opioids can also help people — especially women — stay in the workforce, when they would have otherwise dropped out, a recent study from Princeton University concluded.
How do opioids affect workers’ compensation after they’re injured on the job? That’s the question asked by a new study from researchers at the Workers Compensation Research Institute in Cambridge, Mass., the Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, N.H. and the Department of Economics at the University of California, Irvine, asks a new question:
What they found: Longer-term use of opioids roughly tripled the amount of money employers spend on temporary disability benefits, compared to workers with similar injuries who do not get opioid prescriptions. The researchers did not find evidence that opioids prescribed in workers’ compensation cases would be beneficial.
And considering how many risks are associated with opioids, is it even a good idea to prescribe opioids in the first place, with the hope that employees will get back to work sooner? It turns out, long-term use of opioids may actually cost employers more, because employees who use opioids for an extended period have to be out of work for longer.
For this study, the researchers analyzed workers who were injured on the job and could qualify for workers’ compensation. These workers had low back injuries and missed more than seven days of work after their injuries. The researchers analyzed a group of workers who were given opioids for an extended period of time to treat their injury-related pain, compared to workers who were not.
They controlled for factors including the age of workers and the industries they work in, which might have specific challenges with returning to work (such as construction workers who may have a harder time doing their jobs when they have low back pain). The study was distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass.
That said, the study should not suggest that opioid prescriptions are always unnecessary, the researchers wrote. But there is at least some overuse of longer-term opioids, they concluded, considering that workers with similar injuries could return to work sooner without using opioids over a long period.
See also: This is one way to cut opioid use by 30%
Their take-away: States should consider whether the way they prescribe opioids makes sense, the researchers said. It’s possible the variation in opioid prescriptions the researchers found isn’t related to the severity of the injury, they said.
The study does not directly answer the question of whether prescribing opioids is “medically appropriate,” the researchers wrote. But they did find some geographical areas where workers are prescribed longer-term opioids at higher rates.
States have their own rules about prescription opioids, they point out. Kentucky, for instance, regulates pain clinics and establishes standards for drug monitoring before prescribing opioids. Further research about geographical variations could lead to better conclusions about how opioids should be prescribed, the researchers said.