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Opioid use in rheumatoid arthritis: trends, efficacy, safety, and best practices


Day AL1, Curtis JR. Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2019 May;31(3):264-270. doi: 10.1097/BOR.0000000000000602.

Author Information

1 Division of Clinical Immunology and Rheumatology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama, USA.



The opioid epidemic remains prominent in both the medical literature and popular media. Rheumatologists are among the physicians at the forefront of the epidemic because of the prominent role of pain in rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and the limited options for treatment of pain. The purpose of this review is to provide an update on the trends of opioid use among patients with RA, to discuss the various mechanisms of RA pain, review the available evidence for opioid efficacy in RA, and to promote a guideline for best practices in opioid prescribing.


Recent cohort studies have estimated that up to 40% of patients with RA are regular users of opioids, and the effects of disease-modifying antirheumatic drugs are minimal in reducing opioid use. Although the literature supports the efficacy of short-term opioids for the improvement in pain, long-term use is associated with reduced efficacy and increased safety concerns.


Although the data supporting the use of long-term opioid use in patients with RA is poor, rheumatologists can adhere to best practices for determining when and if initiation of opioids is appropriate. Identification of the nature of the pain can help determine the appropriate course of treatment.