Chronic Pain and Depression Common in Overdoses

By Pat Anson, Editor

People who die from opioid overdoses are significantly more likely to suffer from chronic pain and depression, according to a new study that highlights the risk of combining opioid pain relievers with benzodiazepines, a class of anti-anxiety medication.

Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center analyzed over 13,000 overdose deaths among Medicaid patients and found that over 61 percent had been diagnosed with back pain, headaches or some other chronic pain condition. Many also suffered from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental health problems.

Significantly, nearly half of those with chronic pain (49%) filled a prescription for opioid pain medication during the last 30 days of their lives, and just over half (52%) filled a prescription for benzodiazepines. Prescriptions for anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers were also common.

“This medication combination is known to increase the risk of respiratory depression, which is the unusually slow and shallow breathing that is the primary cause of death in most fatal opioid overdoses," said Mark Olfson, MD, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia and lead investigator of the study.

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“Most persons with opioid-related fatalities were diagnosed with one or more chronic pain condition in the last year of life. As compared to people with opioid-related deaths without diagnosed chronic pain conditions, the decedents with chronic pain diagnoses were more likely to have also received substance use and other mental health disorder diagnoses. They were also more likely to have filled prescriptions for opioids, benzodiazepines, and other psychotropic medications and to have had a nonfatal drug overdose.”

The Columbia study included opioid overdoses linked to both pain medication and illegal opioids such as heroin, but was limited to Medicaid patients who died between 2001 and 2007. Since that time, opioid prescribing has declined, while illegal opioids and counterfeit medication have become increasingly available on the black market.

Public health officials have only recently started warning about the risks of combining opioids with benzodiazepines, and some insurers now refuse to pay for the medications when they are prescribed jointly.

A recent study of overdose deaths in Florida found that benzodiazepines such as Xanax and Valium killed nearly twice as many Floridians in 2016 as oxycodone. Another study in Pennsylvania also found that overdose deaths involving benzodiazepines exceeded those from opioid painkillers.

The Columbia study was published online in the American Journal of Psychiatry. The study was funded by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the New York Psychiatric Institute.