Research Article| Volume 19, ISSUE 8, P931-941, August 2018

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Traumatic Brain Injury and Receipt of Prescription Opioid Therapy for Chronic Pain in Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans: Do Clinical Practice Guidelines Matter?


      • Veterans with the most severe head injury sequelae were most likely to receive opioid therapy.
      • Veterans with moderate to severe traumatic brain injury were more likely to be prescribed opioids.
      • Veterans with traumatic brain injury and mental health comorbidity were at highest risk for opioids.


      Clinical practice guidelines admonish against prescribing opioids for individuals with chronic pain and traumatic brain injury (TBI) because of increased risk for adverse outcomes, yet no studies have described opioid prescribing patterns in these higher-risk patients. Between October 2007 and March 2015, 53,124 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with chronic pain not prescribed opioids in the previous year were followed for 1 year after completing a Comprehensive TBI Evaluation within the Department of Veterans Affairs health care facilities. Veterans reporting the most severe TBI sequelae (eg, loss of consciousness >30 minutes) were significantly more likely to receive short-term and long-term opioid therapy than those with less severe or no TBI sequelae (P values < .001). In analyses adjusted for sociodemographic characteristics, military service, pain disability, and previous nonopioid treatment modalities, veterans with moderate to severe TBI had a significantly increased risk of receiving opioid therapy. Veterans with moderate to severe TBI and comorbid post-traumatic stress disorder and depression had an even greater risk of initiating long-term opioid therapy in the year after the Comprehensive TBI Evaluation (adjusted relative risk = 3.57 [95% confidence interval = 2.85–4.47]). Higher-risk patients with chronic pain and TBI with mental health comorbidities may benefit from improved access to behavioral health and nonpharmacological therapies for chronic pain.


      Paradoxically, veterans with greater TBI severity and comorbid mental health burden are more likely to be prescribed opioids for chronic pain. More vulnerable veterans may benefit from improved access to behavioral health and nonpharmacological modalities for chronic pain, because of the health and safety risks of opioids.

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