One in Four Adults in England Take Addictive Meds

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Nearly 12 million people – about one in four adults in England -- are taking addictive prescription drugs to treat depression, anxiety, insomnia or chronic pain, according to a new review by Public Health England (PHE).

The review takes a cautionary view on the use of five drug classes – opioids, antidepressants, benzodiazepines, gabapentinoids, and so-called “z-drugs” such as zolpidem, zopiclone and zaleplon.

“The medicines we looked at help to make millions of people every year feel better and recover from their illness. Doctors can prescribe them because there is good evidence that they work, but they do have some risks,” the PHE report found.

Benzodiazepines, z-drugs, opioids and gabapentinoids are associated with dependence and withdrawal, while there’s a risk of withdrawal with antidepressants. When the drugs are taken in combination or in high doses, there is also risk of respiratory depression and overdose.  

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About half the patients prescribed the drugs in England had been taking them for at least a year — a sign of dependence. But the report cautions doctors not to abruptly discontinue the drugs and to taper them gradually, if at all.

“There is a view that a sub-population of chronic pain patients can be prescribed long-term opioids at relatively stable doses so that their analgesia and functioning can be maintained with good adherence and tolerable side-effects,” the report found.

“We do not want to put anyone off safely using medicines that could help them. Stopping or limiting the use of medicines could also cause harm, including increasing the risk of suicide or making people try to get medicines or illegal alternatives from less safe sources, such as illegal websites or drug dealers.”

Increasing Use of Antidepressants and Gabapentinoids

Antidepressants were prescribed to about 7.3 million people in England or 17% of the adult population. Opioids were prescribed to 5.6 million patients, followed by gabapentinoids (1.5 million), benzodiazepines (1.4 million) and z-drugs (1 million). Prescriptions for opioids, benzodiazepines and z-drugs are dropping, while the use of antidepressants and gabapentinoids is growing. 

Gabapentinoids such as pregabalin (Lyrica) and gabapentin (Neurontin) were originally developed to treat epilepsy, but the drugs are increasingly prescribed in the UK to treat neuropathy and other types of chronic pain. PHE researchers found only marginal evidence that they are effective for pain and alarming signs that they are being misused. 

“Gabapentinoids have come to be used for a wider range of indications than is supported by the evidence or their licensing, and they have sometimes been prescribed in place of opioids or benzodiazepines in the likely-mistaken belief that they are less liable to misuse or dependence, and lack of awareness of the withdrawal problems that can arise when prescribing is stopped,” the report said. 

Prescriptions for opioids and gabapentinoids were 1.6 times higher in parts of England with more poverty. People in poor areas are also more likely to be prescribed medicines for longer periods. Prescription rates for women are about 1.5 times higher than for men. Prescription rates also increased with age.