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Keywords:

  • opioid;
  • pain;
  • older adults

This systematic review summarizes existing evidence regarding the efficacy, safety, and abuse and misuse potential of opioids as treatment for chronic noncancer pain in older adults. Multiple databases were searched to identify relevant studies published in English (1/1/80–7/1/09) with a mean study population age of 60 and older. Forty-three articles were identified and retained for review (40 reported safety and efficacy data, the remaining 3 reported misuse or abuse outcome data). The weighted mean subject age was 64.1 (mean age range 60–73). Studies enrolled patients with osteoarthritis (70%), neuropathic pain (13%), and other pain-producing disorders (17%). The mean duration of treatment studies was 4 weeks (range 1.5−156 weeks), and only five (12%) lasted longer than 12 weeks. In meta-analyses, effect sizes were −0.557 (P<.001) for pain reduction, −0.432 (P<.001) for physical disability reduction, and 0.859 (P=.31) for improved sleep. The effect size for the Medical Outcomes Study 36-item Health Survey was 0.191 (P=.17) for the physical component score and −0.220 (P=.04) for the mental component score. Adults aged 65 and older were as likely as those younger than 65 to benefit from treatment. Common adverse events included constipation (median frequency of occurrence 30%), nausea (28%), and dizziness (22%) and prompted opioid discontinuation in 25% of cases. Abuse and misuse behaviors were negatively associated with older age. In older adults with chronic pain and no significant comorbidity, short-term use of opioids is associated with reduction in pain intensity and better physical functioning but poorer mental health functioning. The long-term safety, efficacy, and abuse potential of this treatment practice in diverse populations of older persons remain to be determined.