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Guideline Information for Providers

Safe Prescribing Saves Lives

Chronic pain is common, multidimensional, and individualized, and treatment can be challenging for healthcare providers as well as patients. In response to the critical need for consistent and current opioid prescribing guidelines, the CDC released the new Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.  

Since 1999, opioid prescriptions have quadrupled, and over 183,000 people have died from prescription opioids.1,2 These new recommendations focus on clinical practice and provide evidence and guidance to improve how these drugs are prescribed—and ultimately improve patient care.  


What is the purpose of the new guideline?

The guideline helps providers make informed decisions about pain treatment for patients 18 and older in primary care settings. The recommendations focus on the use of opioids in treating chronic pain—pain lasting longer than three months or past the time of normal tissue healing. The guideline is not intended for patients who are in active cancer treatment, palliative care, or end-of-life care.

Opioids pose a risk to all patients. The guideline encourages providers to implement best practices for responsible prescribing.

Use nonopioid therapies

Use nonpharmacologic therapies (such as exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy) and nonopioid pharmacologic therapies (such as anti-inflammatories) for chronic pain. Don’t use opioids routinely for chronic pain. When opioids are used, combine them with nonpharmacologic or nonopioid pharmacologic therapy, as appropriate, to provide greater benefits.

Start low and go slow

When opioids are used, prescribe the lowest possible effective dosage and start with immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release/long-acting opioids. Only provide the quantity needed for the expected duration of pain.


Regularly monitor patients to make sure opioids are improving pain and function without causing harm. If benefits do not outweigh harms, optimize other therapies and work with patients to taper or reduce dosage and discontinue, if needed.

What’s included in the guideline?

The guideline addresses patient-centered clinical practices including conducting thorough assessments, considering all possible treatments, closely monitoring risks, and safely discontinuing opioids. The three main focus areas in the guideline include:

  1. Determining when to initiate or continue opioids for chronic pain
    • Selection of non-pharmacologic therapy, non-opioid pharmacologic therapy, opioid therapy
    • Establishment of treatment goals
    • Discussion of risks and benefits of therapy with patients
  1. Opioid selection, dosage, duration, follow-up and discontinuation
    • Selection of immediate-release or extended-release and long-acting opioids
    • Dosage considerations
    • Duration of treatment
    • Considerations for follow-up and discontinuation of opioid therapy
  1. Assessing risk and addressing harms of opioid use
    • Evaluation of risk factors for opioid-related harms and ways to mitigate/reduce patient risk
    • Review of prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) data
    • Use of urine drug testing
    • Considerations for co-prescribing benzodiazepines
    • Arrangement of treatment for opioid use disorder

What’s new in the CDC Guideline?

Dosage Recommendations

The dosage recommendations for exercising caution are lower than older opioid prescribing guidelines. Higher doses of opioids are associated with higher risk of overdose and death—even relatively low doses (20-50 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) per day) increase risk.

Assessing Risks and Harms

Previous guidelines focused safety precautions on “high risk patients,” however, opioids pose risk to all patients, and currently available tools cannot rule out risk for abuse or other serious harm. The CDC guideline provides recommendations on providing safer care for all patients. The guideline also encourages use of recent technological advances, such as state prescription drug monitoring programs.

Monitoring and Discontinuing

The guideline provides more specific recommendations compared to previous guidelines on monitoring and discontinuing opioids when risks and harms outweigh benefits.

What else is CDC doing?

The new prescribing guideline is just one of the strategies to reduce the number of people who suffer from opioid use disorder or overdose related to these drugs. Other efforts include:

	COCA Webinar Series: Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic PainCOCA Call Webinar Series

CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (NCIPC) has partnered with CDC’s Clinician Outreach and Communication Activity (COCA) and the University of Washington to present a webinar series about the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain. This series is intended to use a data-driven approach to help providers choose the most effective pain treatment options and improve the safety of opioid prescribing for chronic pain. The primary objective is to provide informative, case-based content that will demonstrate and instruct participants on how the 12 recommendations of the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain can be incorporated and applied in a primary care practice setting.

The COCA Call series will be held live on the specified dates below, from 2:00 to 3:00 PM ET. Click on the webinar title for participant information and materials, as well as the archived, on-demand recordings after each live webcast.

Webinar # Live Webcast Date Title


June 22, 2016 Overview of the CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain


July 27, 2016 Nonopioid Treatments for Chronic Pain


August 3, 2016 Assessing Benefits and Harms of Opioid Therapy


August 17, 2016 Dosing and Titration of Opioids


November 29, 2016 Assessment for Opioid Use Disorder and Referral to Evidence-Based Treatment


December 6, 2016 Risk Mitigation Strategies: PDMPs, UDT, and Naloxone


December 13, 2016 Effective Communication with Patients About Opioid Therapy

More Information


  1. Rudd RA, Seth P, David F, Scholl L. Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2010–2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. ePub: 16 December 2016. DOI:
  2. CDC. Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER). Atlanta, GA: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics; 2016. Available at

Assess. Manage. Monitor. Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain