HealthDay says: “Opioids No Better Than Ibuprofen for Pain After Car Crash: Study”, leading with an assertion that prescription painkillers are no more effective than non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. This was also picked up by the daily American College of Emergency Physicians e-mail newsletter.
So – no?
Despite the best of intentions, there is simply no reliable conclusion to be drawn from the cited publication. In the citation, the authors perform a propensity score-matching secondary analysis of prospectively collected observational data on patients discharged from the Emergency Department following a motor vehicle collision. There were 948 patients in their initial study cohort, with approximately half receiving a prescription at ED discharge. Propensity score matching then further excluded approximately 100 more, and finally patients lost to follow-up reduce their ultimate sample to 284. Their primary outcome was the presence of persistent self-reported moderate to severe pain six weeks after their MVC.
Unsurprisingly, with the wide confidence intervals mandated by their small sample, there was some overlap between the number in each group having persistent pain at six weeks. Thus, this leads the authors to make a guarded, but clearly anti-opiate, conclusion the evidence does not exist to recommend opiate therapy at ED discharge.
The bias in any underpowered study is to commit Type II error, which, as a reminder, is to retain the false null hypothesis in failing to detect an effect. Furthermore, as the authors note in their extensive methods section, in non-randomized studies, the measured and unmeasured confounders ultimately guide group assignment, which can bias the downstream results. The adjustments of propensity matching attempt to control for these, but tend to depend on large sample sizes and robust feature sets to reduce the magnitude of systematic bias – neither of which are present here. The need to impute missing data further reduces the reliability of under foundational data. Lastly, is their primary outcome relevant and related to the interventions examined? I am doubtful that six week persistent pain accurately reflects the scope of benefit (or lack thereof) relating to analgesic pharmacotherapy following MVC.
Avoiding the adverse effect of opiates is certainly important. However, this article should add little to the discussion – despite its lay medical press coverage.
“Persistent pain after motor vehicle collision: comparative effectiveness of opioids versus non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs prescribed from the emergency department—a propensity matched analysis”