Opioid use due to knee pain, arthritis has cost society $14 billion

BOSTON, Mass. — Technically, doctors don’t recommend taking opioids to deal with pain due to knee osteoarthritis — or arthritic knee degeneration. That hasn’t stopped roughly 858,000 Americans from doing just that, however, according to a new study. Researchers from Brigham and Women’s Hospital say the use of opioids like tramadol and oxycodone for this purpose has cost society $14 billion, or about $500 million annually.

Led by Elena Losina, PhD, a professor of Orthopedic Surgery at BWH, researchers used a state-of-the-art computer simulation to estimate just how much opioids contribute to knee osteoarthritis–related costs.

Opioid addictive carries a heavy price

All time, they conclude the direct medical costs of treating this form of arthritis with opioids totals $7.45 billion. That’s roughly 53 percent of total lifetime costs researchers estimate. The study finds the other 47 percent of this bill comes from businesses covering lost work hours. It also includes law enforcement expenses due to opioid use disorder cases and the cost of running diversion programs dealing with illicit drug use.

“Given larger number of patients with knee osteoarthritis using opioids, our results provide additional evidence of the substantial economic burden of opioid use for knee osteoarthritis pain management and the potential savings from preventing opioid use,” Dr. Losina says in a media release.

Study authors estimate that, on an individual basis, using opioids for knee pain costs $13,770.

The team adds opioid use to manage pain stemming from knee osteoarthritis represents a major economic burden. They say it is very important that everyone follows the existing guidelines for using these addictive painkillers.

“The most important part of our study is that we estimated that almost half of the total societal cost of opioid use in persons with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis is used to pay for lost work productivity and criminal justice and other consequences of the diversion of prescribed opiates to unlawful use,” Dr. Losina concludes.

“These data offer new evidence of the magnitude of the societal burden generated by opioid use and misuse and could be used to educate health care providers and health policy decision makers on the best alternatives to opiate use.”

The study is published in Arthritis Care & Research.

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John Anderer

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