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Surprising Science

Patients Prescribed Opiates Use More of Them Longer

Prescription opiates help relieve the short-term pains resulting from surgery and some injuries. But many are falling into addiction.

One cannot underestimate opiates addictive nature. Americans make up less than 5 percent of the global population, and yet we’re able to consume around 80 percent of the opioid supply, according to a recent study. Narcotic painkillers are designed as a short-term crutch to deal with the pain of a recent injury—not as a solution to chronic ailments. But the study reveals, patients that don’t stop using within 30 day are at a higher risk to abuse them for a longer period of time.

Kate Thomas of the New York Times reported on the recent study from Express Scripts, a pharmacy benefits manager. She explains there has been some success in reducing the number of people taking addictive painkillers, thanks to a major health campaign. However, patients who are getting these drugs are using them for longer than prescribed.

The report looked at 6.8 million pharmaceutical claims for fillings of opiates, like oxycodone, morphine, codeine, and hydrocodone, between 2009 and 2013. Dr. Glenn Stettin, a Senior Vice President at Express Scripts, sat down with Thomas to explain the findings.

“Not only are more people using these medications chronically, they are using them at higher doses than we would necessarily expect. And they are using them in combinations for which there isn’t a lot of clinical justification.”

Out of 60 percent of patients taking an opioid to treat long-term pain mixed their medications with others. Two-thirds of these people got a second medication from two or more doctors, and 40 percent of those had their prescriptions filled at more than one pharmacy. The concoctions these people were taking matched opiates with benzodiazepine (anti-anxiety medication)–a cocktail that’s considered a common cause for drug overdose deaths. Others took their opiates with a muscle relaxant, or even used all three—an opiate, muscle relaxant, and benzodiazepine to make, what Thomas calls a “Houston cocktail.” This combination is supposed to give users a high similar to heroin.

The study also found that close to half of patients who took an opiate for more than 30 days continued their use for three years or more. The point of addiction comes when users start to use these short-acting medications to treat long-term pain. However, doctors need to take some responsibility.

“It’s our hope that physicians remain reluctant to start people on an opioid pain medication when they’re not necessary, and that there’s an increase in public awareness that people shouldn’t want to get involved with these medications if they don’t need them.”

The lesson here is if you take an opiate after surgery or an accident, stop using as quickly as possible.

Read more at New York Times

Photo: Credit: Shutterstock


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