September 16, 2013
US Opioid Prescriptions Nearly Double In Ten Years
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
More research has been released this week which examines the extent of America’s growing addiction to opioid painkillers. In the last three weeks two studies have been published highlighting this disturbing trend and warning of the dangers therein.
A study published last week found that the number of opioid prescriptions for non-cancer pain has almost doubled in the past decade. What’s more, prescriptions for non-opioid painkillers has remained stable or even declined over the past decade. According to researchers, even though methods of identifying pain and prescribing proper medicines to address it have improved, doctors are doling out opioids at alarming rates.
“There is an epidemic of prescription opioid addiction and abuse in the United States,” explains Alexander in a statement. "We felt it was important to examine whether or not this epidemic has coincided with improved identification and treatment of pain."
Dr. Alexander and colleagues used data gathered as a part of the National Ambulatory Medical Care Survey used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in conjunction with the National Center for Health Statistics. Surveyors tracked prescriptions of pain medications to patients between 2000 and 2010. This nationally representative survey specifically examined prescriptions for opioids such as oxycodone (also known as oxycontin) and morphine for non-cancer pain.
The study found that in the past decade, the number of patients who visited their doctor complaining about pain did not change, nor did the proportion of patients who were prescribed non-opioid or analgesic pain killers.
In the year 2000, 11.3 percent of patients who visited their doctor with complaints of pain left with an opioid prescription. By 2010, however, this percentage had increased to 19.6 percent. The number of patients who were prescribed analgesic pain killers remained more or less stable, increasing from only 26 to 29 percent. According to the survey, 20 percent of all pain-related visits resulted in an opioid prescription, while 27 percent ended with an analgesic.
Dr. Alexander and team also noticed a decline in analgesic prescriptions for new-onset complaints of musculoskeletal pain as opioid prescriptions increased. Between 2000 and 2010, analgesic prescriptions in these cases dropped from 38 to 29 percent. What’s particularly disturbing about this trend, say the researchers, is the lack of evidence to suggest that opioids are any better and relieving pain than their less addictive analgesic alternatives. Alexander's team also noted the lack of guidelines or standards for guiding doctors when prescribing these potentially dangerous medications.
Doctors and other health officials have been paying close attention to chronic pain in recent years, taking care to diagnose it and address it directly. This, say the researchers, could be the driving force behind the increase of opioid painkiller prescriptions.
“We found that not only have the rates of treated pain not improved, but in many cases, use of safer alternatives to opioids, such as medicines like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, have either stayed flat or declined,” Alexander said in a statement.
“This suggests that efforts to improve the identification and treatment of pain may have backfired, due to an over-reliance on prescription opioids that have caused incredible morbidity and mortality among patients young and old alike.”
A recent study released by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found opioid painkillers are responsible for killing more people than any other illegal drug. Less than two weeks after, and following pressure from an advocacy group, the FDA announced new regulations requiring changes to the labels of opioid pain killers. These label changes are meant to alert patients about the dangers of abusing painkillers and suggest that other options should be considered first.