Study Says Most Opioid Deaths Were People Who Had Prescriptions
A newly released study of the opioid crisis in America actually reveals that 2/3 of people who died due to opioids actually were diagnosed with chronic pain and received a prescription painkiller in the year before their death. This research is being called “the largest study of opioid deaths”, and shows that over half of the people who overdosed on opioids between 2001 and 2007 were being treated for chronic pain.
Also, statistics show that the majority of people struggling with heroin addiction actually began by misusing prescription drugs. So while street drugs like heroin are undoubtedly a problem, the fact that so many prescription drugs are being abused is also an important issue.
So when it comes to prescription opioids, how much of an impact do they have on the opioid crisis, and how many of those prescriptions are actually legitimate?
Pain Management IS Important
First things first; One of the more difficult parts of the opioid crisis conversation is how to know when opioids are helping people or putting them in danger. It is a very divisive discussion that often pits people passionately advocating for pain management patients against people who are adamant about the devastation caused by prescription drug abuse.
Whenever the opioid crisis conversation starts to turn to prescription drugs, some people feel that legitimate pain management is under attack. This should not be the case, and it is not this article’s intention to undermine the importance of pain management. For many people who are prescribed opioids for pain, it is not a road to addiction, but it still happens to others.
In March of 2016, the CDC released opioid prescription guidelines that recognize appropriate cases, such as:
- Cancer treatment
- Palliative care
- End-of-life care
- Certain acute care situations if properly dosed
Those suffering from chronic pain can experience a great deal of difficulty trying to find an appropriate pain management program that is safe and effective for them. Many people do benefit from having access to opioids. It can be an essential part of their process in recovering from a serious injury or illness.
But the fact that many people do suffer because of prescription drug dependence and abuse is still important. It is true that illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl have brought a new level of desperation to the drug problem. However, to ignore the impact of prescription opioids is much too dangerous. Again, this is not an attack on pain management. It is also important to consider that the majority of the opioid prescriptions come from a primary care doctor and internal medicine physicians. Very few pain prescriptions actually come from physician specialists.
These Numbers are also Important
The American Journal of Psychiatry published the study, which was conducted by researchers at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), The inquiry examines medical records of 13,089 adults. Each individual included in the study was:
- Under the age of 65
- Enrolled in Medicaid programs
- Died of opioid overdose
One thing the study notes as more shocking is that out of all these cases, only 4% of the overdose victims were ever diagnosed with having a drug abuse problem.
Ultimately, individuals who were diagnosed with chronic pain and prescribed an opioid in the year prior to their death made of 61% of the opioid overdoses. Something else quite shocking the study reveals is that these same people were prescribed benzodiazepines.
Benzodiazepines are commonly identified as anti-anxiety drugs, such as Xanax. What some people may not realize is that these medications combined with opioids can be an especially deadly mix.
Thoughts from the Researchers
Those involved in the study made several suggestions based on the results of the data. The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Mark Olfson, said that understanding the difference between overdose victims who were prescribed the drugs and those who were not “puts us in a better position to combat the epidemic.”
Dr. Olfson went on to say,
“The frequent occurrence of treated chronic pain and mental health conditions among overdose decedents underscores the importance of offering substance use treatment services in clinics that treat patients with chronic pain and mental health problems.”
Dr. Olfson believes that providing such services might help increase early clinical intervention for patients with a higher risk of fatal overdose and prevent some opioid overdose deaths.
More Recent Research
While this study may have focused on deaths from 10 years ago, it is safe to say that prescription opioids have made a substantial contribution to opioid overdose deaths, even for those who are legally prescribed these medications for medical use. Not to mention, there are plenty of numbers to look at today that show the impact of prescription drugs on the opioid epidemic.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the sale of prescription drugs has quadrupled since 1999 and so has overdose deaths involving prescription opioids. To say that there is no connection to those legitimately prescribed these medications and the rising overdose death rates seems, at the vest least, a little tone deaf.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) a study of young urban IV drug users in 2008 and 2009 found:
- 86% used opioid pain relievers for non-medical use before heroin
These people were able to obtain opioids 3 ways:
- Personal Prescriptions
Note that last one. Not everyone who abuses prescription opioids or other prescription medications is getting them off the street. Plenty of people who misuse these powerful medications are people who were medically prescribed these drugs at first but developed a dependence. Others use medication given to them by a friend or loved one with the intention of self-medicating for pain without a proper diagnosis. And when it comes to overdose deaths, a large number of unintentional overdoses are by those who are prescribed the medication.
The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) states:
- In 2012, 259 million opioid prescriptions were written, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills
- 4 in 5 new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers
To be fair, a lot of prescription opioid misuse does come from people obtaining the drugs other than a personal prescription. Still, that does not mean it doesn’t happen.
Today is Time for Treatment
Our greatest hope is that more pain management options will continue to be researched and developed to help more people suffering from severe pain. Physical trauma and extended suffering due to intense damage to the body is not something anyone should have to endure. But we also should focus on helping pursue more solutions that don’t carry the great risks caused by extensive and excessive opioid prescriptions.
Whether this means developing new medications or new treatment options for pain management, the medical community should continue to strive for more opportunities.