Obesity and the Receipt of Prescription Pain Medications in the US

Gawon Cho, Virginia W. Chang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Background: Little is known about disparities in pain treatment associated with weight status despite prior research on weight-based discrepancies in other realms of healthcare and stigma among clinicians. Objective: To investigate the association between weight status and the receipt of prescription analgesics in a nationally representative sample of adults with back pain, adjusting for the burden of pain. Design: Cross-sectional analyses using the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (2010–2017). Participants: Five thousand seven hundred ninety-one civilian adults age ≥ 18 with back pain. Main measures: We examine the odds of receiving prescription analgesics for back pain by weight status using logistic regression. We study the odds of receiving (1) any pain prescription, (2) three pain prescription categories (opioid only, non-opioid only, the combination of both), and (3) opioids conditional on having a pain prescription. Key Results: The odds of receiving pain prescriptions increase monotonically across weight categories, when going from normal weight to obesity II/III, despite adjustments for the burden of pain. Relative to normal weight, higher odds of receiving any pain prescription is associated with obesity I (OR = 1.30 [95% CI = 1.04–1.63]) and obesity II/III (OR = 1.72 [95% CI = 1.36–2.18]). Obesity II/III is also associated with higher odds of receiving opioids only (OR = 1.53 [95% CI = 1.16–2.02]), non-opioids only (OR = 1.77 [95% CI = 1.21–2.60]), and a combination of both (OR = 2.48 [95% CI = 1.44–4.29]). Obesity I is associated with increased receipt of non-opioids only (OR = 1.55 [95% CI = 1.07–2.23]). Conditional on having a pain prescription, the odds of receiving opioids are comparable across weight categories. Conclusions: This study suggests that, relative to those with normal weight, adults with obesity are more likely to receive prescription analgesics for back pain, despite adjustments of the burden of pain. Hence, the possibility of weight-based undertreatment is not supported. These findings are reassuring because individuals with obesity generally experience a higher prevalence of back pain. The possibility of over-treatment associated with obesity, however, may warrant further investigation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2631-2638
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of general internal medicine
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2021


  • health disparities
  • obesity
  • opioids
  • pain
  • pain medicine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Internal Medicine


Dive into the research topics of 'Obesity and the Receipt of Prescription Pain Medications in the US'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this