Longer-term prescribing of opioids causes substantially longer duration of temporary disability among workers with work-related low back injuries, according to a new study from the Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI). Temporary disability is time that workers spend away from work recovering from their work-related injuries.

“While medical practice guidelines often advise against routine use of opioids for the treatment of nonsurgical low back injuries, opioid prescribing in these cases is common,” said John Ruser, WCRI’s president and CEO. “Based on the results of this study, there is a clear implication that policies addressing inappropriate longer-term opioid prescribing will result in faster return to work.”

According to the study, The Impact of Opioid Prescriptions on Duration of Temporary Disability, longer-term opioid prescriptions resulted in durations of temporary disability that were more than triple the durations of temporary disability for claims with no opioid prescriptions. In contrast to the result for longer-term opioid prescribing, a small number of opioid prescriptions, over a short period of time, did not lengthen temporary disability.

Local prescribing patterns also played a strong role in determining whether injured workers received opioid prescriptions. Workers who lived in high-prescription areas were more likely to receive opioid prescriptions than workers who lived in low-prescription areas. For example, a 10 percentage point increase in the local rate of longer-term opioid prescribing was associated with a 2.6 percentage point higher likelihood that an otherwise similar injured worker would receive longer-term opioid prescriptions.

The study was authored by Dr. Bogdan Savych, Dr. David Neumark, and Dr. Randy Lea. It uses data from 28 states, for injuries between 2008 and 2013 where workers had more than seven days of lost work time. The 28 states, which represent over 80 percent of benefits paid, are Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

For more information about this study or to purchase a copy, visit https://www.wcrinet.org/reports/the-impact-of-opioid-prescriptions-on-duration-of-temporary-disability.

The Cambridge-based WCRI is recognized as a leader in providing high-quality, objective information about public policy issues involving workers' compensation systems.

About WCRI:

The Workers Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) is an independent, not-for-profit research organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Since 1983, WCRI has been a catalyst for significant improvements in workers' compensation systems around the world with its objective, credible, and high-quality research. WCRI's members include employers; insurers; governmental entities; managed care companies; health care providers; insurance regulators; state labor organizations; and state administrative agencies in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.