Children's opioid prescriptions after surgery have decreased in the last five years

Photo (c) Peter Dazeley - Getty Images

Health care professionals may be rethinking some of the risks associated with these drugs

A new study conducted by researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia explored trends related to children being prescribed opioids

According to their findings, opioid prescriptions for young kids after surgery have been steadily declining over the last five years. 

“Children grow throughout their childhood, and because opioids are often prescribed based on weight, we cannot assume that what is appropriate for a 5-year-old could also apply to an adolescent,” said researcher Dr. Tori N. Sutherland. “In our study, we wanted to be responsible with our data and consider surgical distribution by age group.” 

Opioid prescriptions are declining

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from a private insurance database that included information on over 125,000 children who received a surgical procedure between 2014 and 2019. The team looked at eight of the most common procedures, including tonsillectomies, appendix removal, and dental surgeries, among others. They then evaluated whether opioids were prescribed and if they were filled within seven days after surgery.

The study showed that there was a significant drop in opioid prescriptions among all children under the age of 18 over the course of the study. In 2014, over 30% of preschool-aged children received opioid prescriptions. However, that number dropped to 11.5% by 2019. Similarly, school-aged children saw prescriptions drop from nearly 54% at the start of the study to 25.5% at the end of the study. Opioid prescriptions for adolescents went from 78.2% to 48% during the same period. 

The researchers also found that the strength of the existing opioid prescriptions also went down between 2014 and 2019. Overall, the average morphine milligram equivalent dropped by nearly 50% for all children involved in the study. Prescriptions for adolescents went from nearly 229 mg to 110 mg, prescriptions for school-aged kids went from 121.3 mg to nearly 66 mg, and prescriptions for preschool-aged kids went from 75.3 mg to 33.2 mg. 

The team identified 2017 as a major turning point in children’s opioid prescriptions. That year marked the greatest drop in dispensing opioids for children after surgery. 

Moving forward, the team plans to do more work in this area to better understand what these trends related to opioid prescriptions mean for health and well-being. 

“Our findings demonstrate that pain treatment for children and adolescents undergoing surgery has changed dramatically over the past 5 years,” said researcher Dr. Mark Neuman. “Understanding what these trends mean for patient experiences and health outcomes is a key next step.” 

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