Prescription Opioid Use in Patients With and Without Systemic Lupus Erythematosus

Michigan Lupus Epidemiology and Surveillance Program, 2014-2015

Emily C. Somers, PhD; Jiha Lee, MD; Afton L. Hassett, PsyD; Suzanna M. Zick, ND; Siobán D. Harlow, PhD; Charles G. Helmick, MD; Kamil E. Barbour, PhD; Caroline Gordon, MD; Chad M. Brummett, MD; Deeba Minhas, MD; Amrita Padda, MD; Lu Wang, PhD; W. Joseph McCune, MD; Wendy Marder, MD


Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2019;68(38):819-824. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Rheumatic diseases are a leading cause of chronic, noncancer pain. Systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) is a chronic autoimmune rheumatic disease characterized by periodic flares that can result in irreversible target organ damage, including end-stage renal disease. Both intermittent and chronic musculoskeletal pain, as well as fibromyalgia (considered a centralized pain disorder due to dysregulation of pain processing in the central nervous system), are common in SLE. Opioids are generally not indicated for long-term management of musculoskeletal pain or centralized pain (fibromyalgia) because of lack of efficacy, safety issues ranging from adverse medical effects to overdose, and risk for addiction.[1,2] In this study of 462 patients with SLE from the population-based Michigan Lupus Epidemiology and Surveillance (MILES) Cohort and 192 frequency-matched persons without SLE, nearly one third (31%) of SLE patients were using prescription opioids during the study period (2014–2015), compared with 8% of persons without SLE (p<0.001). Among the SLE patients using opioids, 97 (68%) were using them for >1 year, and 31 (22%) were concomitantly on two or more opioid medications. Among SLE patients, those using the emergency department (ED) were approximately twice as likely to use prescription opioids (odds ratio [OR] = 2.1; 95% confidence interval [CI] = 1.3–3.6; p = 0.004). In SLE, the combined contributions of underlying disease and adverse effects of immunosuppressive and glucocorticoid therapies already put patients at higher risk for some known adverse effects attributed to long-term opioid use. Addressing the widespread and long-term use of opioid therapy in SLE will require strategies aimed at preventing opioid initiation, tapering and discontinuation of opioids among patients who are not achieving treatment goals of reduced pain and increased function, and consideration of nonopioid pain management strategies.

The MILES Cohort includes patients with SLE from the precursor MILES Surveillance Registry,[3] which comprised persons with incident and prevalent SLE during 2002–2005. Briefly, the Registry source population included residents of Wayne and Washtenaw counties in southeastern Michigan, a region encompassing Detroit and Ann Arbor (population approximately 2.4 million). All MILES Registry patients still living in or near this region during the 2014–2015 recruitment and enrollment period were eligible for inclusion in the Cohort. During this period, 192 persons who did not have SLE were recruited from a random sample of households in this region and frequency-matched to SLE patients by age, sex, race, and county of residence. Males were oversampled among this group to attain roughly equivalent numbers of males in both groups. Ethics approval was obtained from the Institutional Review Boards of the University of Michigan and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; written, informed consent was obtained from all participants.

Data were collected through structured interviews conducted during February 2014–September 2015. Self-reported data included all prescription medications currently being taken and duration of use; long-term opioid use was defined as use for >1 year. ED use was considered one or more visits to an ED within the last 12 months. Patient-reported outcome measures included fibromyalgia*,[4] pain and physical function, and depression and anxiety.§ Measures specific to patients included SLE duration, disease activity,[5] and SLE-related damage resulting from disease or its treatment.[6]

Chi-squared tests or independent two-sample t-tests were used for comparisons between groups. Two multivariable logistic regression models were used to evaluate factors associated with opioid use in the total study population (patients and nonpatients) and in SLE patients only. In multivariable analyses, potential confounders included the following a priori-specified covariates: age, sex, race, income, education, unemployment, health insurance type, patient-reported measures (ED use, fibromyalgia, pain, physical functioning, depression, anxiety; and, for SLE patients, illness duration, activity, and damage). Stata (version 15.1; StataCorp) was used for analyses.

The study population included 462 SLE patients and 192 nonpatients. Patients were more often female, unemployed, and more frequently reported ED use, fibromyalgia, pain, poor physical function, depression, and anxiety (Table 1). Overall, 143 (31%) patients and 15 (8%) nonpatients were currently using prescription opioids (p<0.01). Among persons currently using prescription opioids, median duration (3 years) and interquartile range (IQR) (first and third quartiles) were similar among patients and nonpatients (IQR = 1 and 5 years, and 2 and 3 years, respectively; p = 0.91). Among patients using prescription opioids, 97 (68%) were on therapy for >1 year (Table 2), and 31 (22%) were using two or more opioid medications concomitantly.

Within the total study population, the odds of opioid use among SLE patients were 3 times higher than for nonpatients (OR = 3.4, 95% CI = 1.7–6.6; p <0.001) after accounting for demographic, psychosocial, and clinical factors (Table 3). In analyses of both the total study population and SLE patients only, prescription opioid use was twice as likely among persons who had at least one ED visit in the last 12 months (total population: OR = 2.2, 95% CI 1.4–3.6), SLE patients only: OR = 2.1, 95% CI = 1.3–3.6). Pain and reduced physical functioning were also significantly associated with opioid use when assessing the total population and SLE patients only; for each one standard deviation increase (worsening) in pain and physical function scores, the odds of opioid use were approximately 35% and 12% higher, respectively.

* Based on survey criteria for fibromyalgia.
Based on RAND Medical Outcomes Study Short-Form-Survey instrument subscales, with reversed scores so that higher scores represent worse states.
§ Based on National Institutes of Health Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System short forms 8b (depression) and 8a (emotional distress-anxiety).