Opioid Abuse Down; Deaths Up in U.S.

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new study has found conflicting trends in the abuse and misuse of opioid pain medication in the U.S.

From 2003 to 2013, the “nonmedical” use of prescription opioids decreased in American adults from 5.4 percent to 4.9 percent. At the same time, however, rates of opioid abuse and opioid related deaths increased.

Drug overdose deaths associated with prescription opioids rose sharply during those ten years, from 4.5 deaths per 100,000 people to 7.8 deaths per 100,000 in 2013.

The study, which was published in JAMA, the official journal of the American Medical Association, is certain to fuel further debate about opioid pain medication and whether further efforts are needed to limit its prescribing.

"We found a significant decrease in the percentage of nonmedical use of prescription opioids, as well as significant increases in the prevalence of prescription opioid use disorders, high-frequency use, and related mortality,” the study says.

“Furthermore, the increases identified in this study occurred in the context of increasing heroin use and heroin-related overdose deaths in the United States, supporting a need to address nonmedical use of prescription opioid and heroin abuse in a coordinated and comprehensive manner."

“The most disturbing statistic is the increase in mortality per 100,000,” said Lynn Webster, MD, past president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “Unfortunately the data doesn't help sort out if the deaths are occurring in patients or non-patients.  It is important to know because the required interventions will differ depending on the reasons for overdose within both groups.  

“For example the definition of ‘nonmedical use’ is defined as use without a prescription or with a prescription for how the opioid makes the individual ‘feel’.  Of course an opioid is supposed to make people feel better.  Is that nonmedical use or is it therapeutic use defined as nonmedical use?”

It didn’t take long for critics of opioid prescribing to weigh in. JAMA also published an editorial that immediately pointed a finger at patients, not addicts.

“Most opioids misused by patients originate from prescription medication. Most patients who overdose on prescription opioids are taking their medications differently than prescribed or are using opioids prescribed to someone else. These 2 main types of nonmedical opioid use represent a major cause of morbidity and mortality,” wrote Lewis Nelson, MD; David Juurlink, MD, and Jeanmarie Perrone, MD.

"The chronic, relapsing nature of opioid addiction means most patients are never 'cured,' and the best outcome is long-term recovery. The lifelong implications of this disease far outweigh the limited benefits of opioids in the treatment of chronic pain, and in many cases the risks inherent in the treatment of acute pain with opioids.”

“Oh my goodness, this is terrible,” said Janice Reynolds a chronic pain sufferer and patient activist. She said the editorial was full of “myths and “lies” that discount the use of opioids to relieve pain.

“There is, despite their claims, much research which supports its use,” Reynolds said in an email.

Coincidentally, all three authors of the editorial – Nelson, Juurlink and Perrone – are members of panels developing opioid prescribing guidelines for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Currently those guidelines recommend “non-pharmacological therapy” and other types of pain relievers as preferred treatments for chronic non-cancer pain. Smaller doses and quantities of opioids are also recommended for acute or chronic pain.  A complete list of the guidelines can be found here.

Nelson is a member of the CDC's "Core Expert Group," a panel that advised the CDC on initial development of the opioid guidelines.

Juurlink, who is considered a “stakeholder” by the CDC, is a board member of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing (PROP), an advocacy group that seeks to reduce the overprescribing of opioids.

Perrone has an even more important role with the CDC, serving on a three member peer review panel that will help finalize the opioid guidelines. Another member of the peer review committee, David Tauben, MD, is also a PROP board member.

The CDC has informed Pain News Network that the peer reviewers were asked to disclose any conflicts of interest, including any financial, professional or other interest relevant to their work -- and nothing was found to warrant removal from the peer review panel.

"PROP (Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing) is considered a professional membership organization and wasn’t considered a conflict of interest unless  there was a financial and promotional relationship identified," said Shelly Diaz, a CDC spokesperson.

"The Peer Reviewers  disclosed no financial interests or other  promotional relationships with the manufacturers of commercial products, suppliers of commercial services, or commercial supporters. When reviewers  reported interests related to intellectual property, other (travel, gifts), public statements and positions, or additional information provided, their statements were carefully reviewed by the CDC guideline development staff to determine if the interests would have an effect on the suggestions."