Opioid Use Stabilized in U.S. Decade Ago

By Pat Anson, Editor

The use of prescription drugs has soared in the United States since the turn of the century, with nearly six out of ten adults taking a prescribed medication at least once in the last 30 days, according to a new survey.

But while the use of blood pressure medication, statins and anti-depressants rose sharply from 1999 to 2012 -- the use of opioid pain medication appears to have stabilized and gone into decline over a decade ago.

“Although increased use of narcotic analgesics may raise concern about their potential misuse or abuse, it should be noted that use stabilized after 2003-2004. This flattening trend may reflect increased awareness of prescription opioid drug misuse or abuse, although underreporting of these drugs may have increased with awareness regarding their potential for abuse,” wrote lead author Elizabeth Kantor, PhD, formerly of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who is now with the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

The study findings are published in JAMA, the official journal of the American Medical Association.

The use of opioids rose from 3.8% of adults in 1999 to 5.7% in 2004, according to the study. Since then they have begun to decline slightly. The use of non-opioid pain relievers also appears to have leveled off. 

The data for the survey was compiled differently than most other studies of prescription drugs, which rely on pharmacy databases and insurance claims, not on actual use of the drugs.

The survey involved nearly 38,000 adults across the U.S. and was collected during household interviews.  Participants were asked if they had taken a prescription drug during the last 30 days. If they responded “yes” they were asked to name the medication or to show the drug’s container.

Although other studies have indicated that opioid prescribing is in decline, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claims there is an “urgent need for improved prescribing practices.” It plans to issue new prescribing guidelines for primary care physicians in January that would limit the quantities and doses of opioids for both acute and chronic pain.  A complete list of the guidelines can be found here.

The opioid hydrocodone was once the most widely prescribed medication in the U.S. But hydrocodone does not appear in the list of top ten drugs used by participants in the survey, nor does any other opioid. The most commonly used prescribed medication in 2011-2012 was simvastatin, followed by lisinopril, levothyroxine, metoprolol, metformin, hydrochlorothiazide, omeprazole, amlodipine, atorvastatin, and albuterol.

“Eight of the 10 most commonly used drugs in 2011-2012 are used to treat components of the cardiometabolic syndrome, including hypertension, diabetes, and dyslipidemia. Another is a proton-pump inhibitor used for gastroesophageal reflux, a condition more prevalent among individuals who are overweight or obese. Thus, the increase in use of some agents may reflect the growing need for treatment of complications associated with the increase in overweight and obesity,” said Kantor.

The researchers found that prescription drug use increased from 51% of adults in 1999-2000 to 59% in 2011-2012. The prevalence of polypharmacy (use of five or more prescription drugs) nearly doubled, from 8% to 15% of those surveyed.