Hydrocodone Prescriptions Continue Falling

By Pat Anson, Editor

For the fifth year in a row, fewer prescriptions for the opioid painkiller hydrocodone were dispensed in the U.S. in 2016, according to a new report by the QuintilesIMS Institute, which tracks prescription drug use and spending.

The report adds further evidence that the nation’s overdose epidemic is being fueled by illegal opioids such as heroin and illicit fentanyl, not prescription painkillers.

About 7 million fewer prescriptions were filled last year for hydrocodone, which is usually combined with acetaminophen in Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet, Norco, and other hydrocodone combination products.

As recently as 2012, hydrocodone was the #1 most widely dispensed medication in the nation, with 136 million prescriptions filled. Since then, hydrocodone prescriptions have fallen by over a third, to 90 million prescriptions.

Hydrocodone now ranks fourth, behind the thyroid drug levothyroxine (Synthroid), the blood pressure medication lisinopril (Zestril), and the statin atorvastatin (Lipitor).

Hydrocodone was reclassified by the DEA as a Schedule II controlled substance in 2014, making it harder to obtain. Opioid guidelines released last year by the CDC also probably had an impact, although hydrocodone prescriptions were falling long before the CDC and DEA acted.


Source: QuintilesIMS Institute

Prescriptions for hydrocodone and other opioids are likely to fall even further in 2017, because the DEA plans to reduce the supply of almost every Schedule II opioid pain medication by 25 percent or more "to prevent diversion." The 2017 quota for hydrocodone is being reduced by a third, to 58.4 million prescriptions, which the DEA considers an adequate supply.

Overall, QuintilesIMS reported 13 million fewer prescriptions for pain medicines in 2016, “as restrictions on prescribing and dispensing become increasingly common and impactful.” The company includes both narcotic and non-narcotic treatments in its pain medicine category.

Over 7 million more prescriptions were written last year for gabapentin (Neurontin), a medication originally developed to treat seizures that is now widely prescribed for neuropathy and other chronic pain conditions.  About 64 million prescriptions were written for gabapentin in 2016, a 49% increase since 2011.

More prescriptions are also being written for ibuprofen, a widely used pain reliever available both by prescription and in over-the-counter drugs. About 44 million prescriptions were filled for ibuprofen in 2016, a 19% increase since 2012.

The shift in prescribing away from opioids is hardly a surprise to pain sufferers. According to a recent survey of over 3,100 patients by PNN and the International Pain Foundation, over 70% said they were no longer prescribed opioids or were getting a lower dose since the CDC guidelines were released. About half of the doctors and pharmacists we surveyed also said they were writing or filling fewer opioid prescriptions, or had stopped them altogether.  

“My doctor cut me off hydrocodone cold turkey last fall leading to an overnight in the hospital emergency room,” a patient with chronic back pain and anxiety told PNN. “For years I have been stable on a mix of hydrocodone and Valium. Last October my doctor said he would only fill one prescription and asked me to make a choice so I stayed with the Valium.”

“With the VA allowing me only 2 hydrocodone per day now, I get very little exercise and stay in bed a lot,” a 70-year old veteran wrote. “My quality of life has gone down considerably. Before the changes, I stayed quite active taking 4 hydrocodone a day.”

“I had an interventional pain management doctor scream at me that the guidelines were mandatory and he refused to write for any type of opioids even though I've been on the same level of hydrocodone for several years,” another patient said.

“I took hydrocodone pain medicine for 25 years as the doctor proscribed. Never called in for more, now I'm having to go a pain doctor and get steroid shots every 3 months,” wrote a patient with lives with chronic back pain.

Overall spending on prescription drugs in the U.S. reached $323 billion in 2016, a 4.8% increase that is less than half the rate of the previous two years. The QuintilesIMS report blames the slowdown in growth on increased competition among drug makers and efforts to limit price increases.

“New medicines introduced in the past two years continue to drive at least half of the total growth as clusters of innovative treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, HIV, multiple sclerosis, and diabetes become accessible to patients,” said Murray Aitken, Senior Vice President and Executive Director, QuintilesIMS Institute.