The Complexity of Rx Opioid Misuse

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The misuse of prescription opioids is a complex phenomenon. Recent research has found that non-medical opioid use almost always involves a variety of other substances -- not just exposure in the course of routine medical care.

The risks of non-medical prescription opioid use developing into addiction need to be better understood to develop more effective measures to prevent misuse and to ensure that patients who use opioids responsibly are not wrongly targeted.

A new study in The American Journal on Addictions looked closely at the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which found that that about 2.5% of respondents had misused prescription opioids in the previous 30 days. Almost half (43.9%) obtained opioid analgesics from a friend or relative for free and most were using other substances, such as cigarettes, alcohol, marijuana or street drugs.

“So much of the public discussion focuses on the opioid epidemic as though it is happening in a vacuum when, in fact, so many people misusing prescription opioids are also engaging in other substance use,” says lead author Timothy Grigsby, PhD, an assistant professor at The University of Texas at San Antonio.

“If we want to end the opioid epidemic, and stop another similar one from taking its place, then we need to consider the entire clinical picture of the patient including their use of other substances.”

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Grigsby and his colleagues found that prescription opioid and polydrug users were also more likely to engage in stealing, selling drugs, have suicidal thoughts, suffer from major depression and need substance use treatment.

A similar study recently published in the journal Pediatrics examined non-medical prescription opioid use by parents and teenagers. The study found that parental misuse of opioid analgesics was associated with teenagers doing the same, with mothers’ use having a stronger association than fathers’ use.

Parental smoking, low parental monitoring and parent-adolescent conflict were also associated with teenage prescription opioid misuse, as were adolescent smoking, marijuana use, depression, delinquency and schoolmates’ drug use.

Despite what you may have heard, non-medical prescription opioid use does not usually lead to heroin. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that only 4 to 6 percent of people who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.

But trends in this transition have been shifting. A new study in PLOS One found that people who injected illicit drugs who were born after 1980 were more likely to initiate drug use with prescription opioids and non-opioids, and had higher levels of polydrug use. This study was limited to Baltimore, but similar findings have been reported for other parts of the U.S.

Importantly, most non-medical prescription opioid use occurs in the context of more general substance use. U.S. News recently reported that most patients treated in emergency rooms for misuse of prescription medications get into trouble because they mixed different substances.

"Most of the time there may have been only one pharmaceutical involved, but there were other non-pharmaceutical substances or psychoactive drugs or alcohol involved as well. When people get into trouble with misusing medicines, they're usually taking more than one substance," Dr. Andrew Geller of the CDC told U.S. News.

This is a long-standing trend in the opioid crisis. The 2014 Overdose Fatality Report in Kentucky found that the top five drugs in drug-related deaths were morphine, cannabis, heroin, alcohol and alprazolam (Xanax), with more than one drug present in many overdoses.

Moreover, a new study in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment compared 2013 and 2017 data on patients seeking opioid addiction treatment. Researchers found that many patients had employment, psychiatric, alcohol and drug problems, and were more likely to have depression, anxiety, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts. In other words, the overdose crisis is far more complex and dangerous than just opioids alone.

Fortunately, these long-standing trends are now starting to be appreciated. Public and private health officials in Ohio have started looking at data from multiple sources to better address mental health and substance abuse. 

The overdose crisis is a fast-moving target that is rapidly evolving. Overdoses now more than ever involve multiple drugs, and may not even occur among people who use opioids non-medically or people who have a substance use disorder. Understanding these features of the crisis is essential for developing better responses.

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.