Opioid Use After Wisdom Teeth Removal Could Lead to Long-Term Use

Wisdom teeth removal, a common procedure typically performed during the teen years, may contribute to long-term drug use.

Scientists from the University of Michigan studied how opioid painkillers prescribed after wisdom teeth removal affect patients later on in life. Published in Journal of the American Medical Association on Tuesday, the study showed that people ages 13 to 30 who filled an opioid prescription immediately before or after they had their wisdom teeth removed were nearly 2.7 times more likely to continue filling opioid prescriptions weeks or months later.

Patients in their late teens and 20s were the most likely to persistently use opioids, while those who were in middle and high school were less likely to continue using the drugs. The study focused on patients who were considered "opioid naïve" because they hadn't had an opioid prescription six months before the procedure and didn't have any surgeries that required anesthesia for a year after.

"Until now, we haven't had data on the long-term risks of opioid use after wisdom tooth extraction," Calista Harbaugh, who led the study, said in a press release. "We now see that a sizable number go on to fill opioid prescriptions long after we would expect they would need for recovery, and the main predictor of persistent use is whether or not they fill that initial prescription."

Harbaugh says wisdom tooth extractions in the United States are performed 3.5 million times each year. There aren't any recommended prescription treatment plans after the surgery, and Harbaugh says other options for pain management might work better, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories including aspirin and ibuprofen. In March, the American Dental Association recommended at most a seven-day supply of opioids for acute pain, but the scientists in this study believe patients should be offered even fewer days of opioids.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of opioid deaths are from prescription pills. Since 1999, overdose deaths from opioids have increased by more than five times, leading to 42,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016. Additionally, from 1999 to 2014, prescription opioid sales have nearly quadrupled.

Prescription painkiller Oxycodone Hydrochloride pills. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 40 percent of opioid deaths are from prescription pills. GEORGE FREY/REUTERS

Many countries, including the United Kingdom, have completely stopped performing wisdom tooth removal procedures unless there are complications as the teeth grow in. The Michigan team plans to continue to study how opioid prescriptions affect patients by looking into exactly how many pills the patients took and their experience with the procedure and the opioids.