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Papers of the Week

Papers: 19 Mar 2022 - 25 Mar 2022

2022 Mar

Pain Physician



Fourth Wave of Opioid (Illicit Drug) Overdose Deaths and Diminishing Access to Prescription Opioids and Interventional Techniques: Cause and Effect.


Manchikanti L, Singh V M, Staats PS, Trescot AM, Prunskis J, Knezevic N N, Soin A, Kaye AD, Atluri S, Boswell MV, Abd-Elsayed A, Hirsch JA
Pain Physician. 2022 Mar; 25(2):97-124.
PMID: 35322965.


In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, data has shown that age-adjusted overdose death rates involving synthetic opioids, psychostimulants, cocaine, and heroin have been increasing, including prescription opioid deaths, which were declining, but, recently, reversing the trends. Contrary to widely held perceptions, the problem of misuse, abuse, and diversion of prescription opioids has been the least of all the factors in recent years. Consequently, it is important to properly distinguish between the role of illicit and prescription opioids in the current opioid crisis. Multiple efforts have been based on consensus on administrative policies for certain harm reduction strategies for individuals actively using illicit drugs and reducing opioid prescriptions leading to curbing of medically needed opioids, which have been ineffective. While there is no denial that prescription opioids can be misused, abused, and diverted, the policies have oversimplified the issue by curbing prescription opioids and the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of severely limiting prescription opioids, without acknowledgement that opioids have legitimate uses for persons suffering from chronic pain. Similar to the opioid crisis, interventional pain management procedures have been affected by various policies being applied to reduce overuse, abuse, and finally utilization. Medical policies have been becoming more restrictive with reduction of access to certain procedures, with the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of limiting interventional techniques. Recent utilization assessments have shown a consistent decline for most interventional techniques, with a 18.7% decrease from 2019 to 2020. The causes for these dynamic changes are multifactorial likely including the misapplication of the 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain, the relative ease of access to illicit synthetic opioids and more recently issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, recent publications have shown association of dose tapering with overdose or mental health crisis among patients prescribed long-term opioids. These findings are leading to the hypothesis that federal guidelines may inadvertently be contributing to an increase in overall opioid deaths and diminished access to interventional techniques. Together, these have resulted in a fourth wave of the opioid epidemic.