Codeine and oxycodone use in patients with chronic rheumatic disease pain

Steven R. Ytterberg, Maren L. Mahowald, Sharon R. Woods

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

92 Scopus citations


Objective. Opioid treatment of chronic rheumatic disease pain is controversial because of concerns regarding efficacy, toxicity, tolerance, dependence, and abuse. This study examined opioid use in a cohort of patients with pain due to defined rheumatic diseases. Methods. Opioid use was studied retrospectively in a cohort of 644 rheumatology clinic patients. Computerized pharmacy records identified patients who had been prescribed opioids during the previous 3 years. Medical records were reviewed to determine reasons for opioid dosage escalations. Patients were interviewed to determine efficacy, frequency and types of side effects, and history of alcohol or street-drug abuse. Results. Opioid prescriptions were found in the 3-year pharmacy database for 290 of 644 clinic patients: 153 for <3 consecutive months and 137 for ≤3 months. All opioid-treated patients received codeine and/or oxycodone. In this cohort, 133 patients in each opioid-treated group and 76 of the 354 non-opioid-treated control patients were studied. Opioids significantly reduced rheumatic disease pain severity scores from 8.2 to 3.6 (on a 0-10 scale) (P < 0.001). Mild side effects were reported in 38%; nausea, dyspepsia, constipation, and sedation were the most common. The mean ±SD initial dosage was 2.1 ± 1.7 30-mg codeine equivalents/day, the mean peak was 3.4 ± 3.3 per day, and the mean current dose was 2.7 ± 2.0 per day. Dosage escalations occurred in 32 patients and were attributable to worsening of the underlying painful condition or a medical complication thereof in all but 4 patients, who also displayed other abuse behaviors. Abuse behaviors were not more frequent in those with or without a history of abuse/addiction. Conclusion. Prolonged treatment of rheumatic disease pain with codeine or oxycodone was effective in reducing pain severity and was associated with only mild toxicity. Doses were stable for prolonged periods of time, with escalations of the opioid dose almost always related to worsening of the painful condition or a complication thereof, rather than the development of tolerance to opioids. Doubts or concerns about opioid efficacy, toxicity, tolerance, and abuse or addiction should no longer be used to justify withholding opioids from patients with well-defined rheumatic disease pain.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1603-1612
Number of pages10
JournalArthritis and rheumatism
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Rheumatology
  • Immunology
  • Pharmacology (medical)


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