Differences in opioid prescribing in low back pain patients with and without depression: a cross-sectional study of a national sample from the United States

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Low back pain (LBP) is among the leading indications for the prescription of opioid analgesics in clinical practice. There is increasing evidence suggesting that these agents may have diminished efficacy in the treatment of LBP.


We evaluated the relationship between depression, the probability of receiving an opioid prescription, and the amount of morphine equivalent amounts prescribed per year among patients with LBP using nationwide data.


A cross-sectional analysis was performed on existing data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey data set from the period 2004 to 2009. Demographic, medical condition, Patient Health Questionnaire-2 responses, and prescription drug information were obtained on 56,811,864 weighted person-years of data from individuals aged 18 to 65 with an ICD-9 code specific to LBP.


Increases in PHQ-2 score, as well a positive screen for depression, were associated with an increased probability of being prescribed opioid therapy and more morphine equivalents per year.


Analysis of a nationwide sample of patients with LBP shows an association between depression and higher rates of opioid prescribing after controlling for several known cofounders. Clinicians prescribing opioids in LBP populations that rely on clinical trial results that exclude depressed patients may misjudge the risks and benefits of this class of therapy.

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