Long-Term Opioid Use Linked To Wisdom Teeth Extraction

By Kelly Burch 08/10/18

Researchers examined whether opioids prescribed to manage pain from wisdom teeth extraction heightened the risk of long-term use.

dentist moving in to perform dental procedure.

Nearly 85% of people will need to have their wisdom teeth extracted at some point during their lives, and a new study shows that this routine dental procedure can have severe consequences—with young people who use opioids after the procedure three times more likely to fill opioid prescriptions long-term. 

“From our findings, we should strongly consider not prescribing any opioids routinely after wisdom teeth are pulled. Particularly since there is evidence that anti-inflammatories may be just as good, if not better, for pain management after wisdom teeth are pulled,” Dr. Calista Harbaugh, lead study author and a general surgery resident at the University of Michigan, where the research was conducted, told ABC News.

For the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on August 7, researchers looked at 71,000 insured people from 2009 to 2015.

About 60,000 filled prescriptions for opioids intended to relieve the pain from the tooth extraction. Researchers then looked at future opioid use and found that young people were most likely to fill additional opioid prescriptions in the future. 

This is not the first time that researchers have connected dental work with risk for long-term use of opioids. Last summer, another study published in JAMA warned that doctors and dentists should be weighing opioid dependence as a potential complication from surgery. 

“New persistent opioid use represents but previously underappreciated surgical complication that warrants increased awareness,” they wrote. 

Harbaugh said wisdom tooth extraction is especially risky because it comes at a time when people may be more likely to become addicted, and it is a very common procedure, with more than 3.5 million extractions taking place each year. 

“Teens and young adults are an important population to understand the effects of exposure to opioids for predictable reasons, like having wisdom teeth pulled,” she said. “They are vulnerable from the standpoint of ongoing development as well as social pressures.”

Despite increased awareness about the dangers of opioids, dentists have been accused of over-prescribing painkillers as rates of opioid prescription continue to climb. In March, the American Dental Association announced new guidelines meant to limit opioid prescribing. 

“As president of the ADA, I call upon dentists everywhere to double down on their efforts to prevent opioids from harming our patients and their families,” ADA President Joseph P. Crowley said in a news release. “This new policy demonstrates ADA’s firm commitment to help fight the country’s opioid epidemic while continuing to help patients manage dental pain.”

The newest study suggests that these efforts are critical. 

“It will be important to find areas where we can help eliminate the exposure to opioids in this group to show long-term decrease in opioid use,” said Dr. Chad Brummett, an assistant professor of anesthesiology at the University of Michigan.

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.