High-Dose Opioid Use Among Veterans with Unexplained Gastrointestinal Symptoms Versus Structural Gastrointestinal Diagnoses

Salva N. Balbale*, Lishan Cao, Itishree Trivedi, Jonah J. Stulberg, Katie J. Suda, Walid F. Gellad, Charlesnika T. Evans, Bruce L. Lambert, Neil Jordan, Laurie A. Keefer

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Background: In a cohort of Veterans dually enrolled in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and Medicare Part D, we sought to describe high-dose daily opioid use among Veterans with unexplained gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms and structural GI diagnoses and examine factors associated with high-dose use. Methods: We used linked national patient-level data from the VA and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). We grouped patients into 3 subsets: those with unexplained GI symptoms (e.g., chronic abdominal pain); structural GI diagnoses (e.g., chronic pancreatitis); and those with a concurrent unexplained GI symptom and structural GI diagnosis. High-dose daily opioid use levels were examined as a binary variable [≥ 100 morphine milligram equivalents (MME)/day] and as an ordinal variable (50–99 MME/day, 100–119 MME/day, or ≥ 120 MME/day). Results: We identified 141,805 chronic GI patients dually enrolled in VA and Part D. High-dose opioid use was present in 11% of Veterans with unexplained GI symptoms, 10% of Veterans with structural GI diagnoses, and 15% of Veterans in the concurrent GI group. Compared to Veterans with only an unexplained GI symptom or structural diagnosis, concurrent GI patients were more likely to have higher daily opioid doses, more opioid days ≥ 100 MME, and higher risk of chronic use. Factors associated with high-dose use included opioid receipt from both VA and Part D, younger age, and benzodiazepine use. Conclusions: A significant subset of chronic GI patients in the VA are high-dose opioid users. Efforts are needed to reduce high-dose use among Veterans with concurrent GI symptoms and diagnoses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3938-3950
Number of pages13
JournalDigestive diseases and sciences
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2021


  • Gastroenterology
  • Health services
  • Opioid analgesics
  • Pain management

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gastroenterology
  • Physiology


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