Is Ketamine an Opioid?

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A drug used to treat depression and pain is being touted as possible solution to the opioid crisis.

This week a South Carolina drug maker said it would partner with a medical device company to sell ketamine in take home medication bags that can be administered by an ambulatory pain pump. The idea is to give patients recovering from surgery a safer alternative to opioids.

“We are proud to partner with InfuTronix Solutions to deliver opioid-free pain medication to patients across the country,” Nephron Pharmaceuticals CEO Lou Kennedy said in a statement. “The overuse of opioids is a crisis in America. Non-narcotic pain management is a cost-saving way that companies like ours can help save lives.”

Non-narcotic? Opioid-free?

That’s not what a team of researchers at Stanford University concluded last year after studying how ketamine works in the brain. In a small clinical study, they gave a dozen patients diagnosed with depression a combination of ketamine and naltrexone – an opioid-receptor blocker. To their surprise, naltrexone stopped ketamine from working as an antidepressant.

In effect, the researchers discovered that ketamine works just like oxycodone, hydrocodone and other painkillers – by activating opioid receptors in the brain. 

“Everything that I was taught, and everything that I’ve always taught my students — all of the evidence supports the fact that ketamine is not an opioid,” said lead author Boris Heifets, MD, a clinical assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative and pain medicine. “I was really surprised at the results.”

800px-Two_doses_of_iv_ketamine.jpg

“And the results were so clear that we ended the study early to avoid exposing additional patients to the ineffective combination treatment,” said co-lead author Nolan Williams, MD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science.

The Stanford research, published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, caught psychiatrists and pain management experts by surprise. Some urged caution about the long-term use of ketamine until more can be learned about potential side effects such as addiction. Some depressed patients taken off ketamine have shown signs of withdrawal and became suicidal.

“Given the rapid relapse and potential suicide risk, it is hard to know what to recommend to clinicians. Should they really continue to use the agent beyond an acute course? For how long? In whom?” Alan Schatzberg, MD, a Stanford professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, warned in a commentary. “The drug’s opioid properties need to be considered when considering how best to use it.”

‘A Black Eye to Ketamine’

Talk like that has given ketamine a bad rap, according to experts at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. They’ve published a commentary of their own, defending the use of ketamine as a necessary treatment for depression that doesn’t respond to typical antidepressants.

“A (Stanford) study done late last year delivered a black eye to ketamine, and as a result of the coverage, there was a wholesale acceptance by both potential patients and physicians that ketamine is an opioid,” says Adam Kaplin, MD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins.

“This is most worrisome if people continue to think this way, particularly in the wake of the opioid epidemic; clinicians won’t refer patients for a treatment, despite that it has been shown to be incredibly effective for many patients with treatment-resistant depression.”

Kaplin says there is ample evidence that ketamine sticks to NMDA receptors in the brain that are involved in learning and memory. Because these NMDA receptors are found together with opioid receptors, Kaplin says it’s no surprise that the can meddle with one another, like interference picked up on a phone call or static on the radio.

“This interference and cross-talk does not mean that ketamine is an opioid, and to wrongly label it as such could eventually keep patients from essential antidepressant medications that could make a huge difference in their quality of life,” said Kaplin, who plans on opening a ketamine clinic.

The debate over whether ketamine is an opioid comes at a time when its use is expanding.  Ketamine was approved by the FDA in 1970 solely as a surgical anesthetic to be taken intravenously or by injection. But a growing number of clinics now offer off-label infusions of ketamine to treat depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and difficult chronic pain conditions such as Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).

Demand has grown so much there are reports of ketamine shortages. Although ketamine itself is inexpensive, the infusions can cost several hundred dollars and are not covered by insurance.

Ketamine Nasal Spray

Not until this year did the Food and Drug Administration approve the use of ketamine to treat depression, when it okayed a nasal spray (Spravato) made by Janssen Pharmaceuticals that contains a ketamine compound.

The FDA approved Spravato even though 2 out of 3 short term trials failed to prove its effectiveness. The spray was effective in a longer trial, but only when taken with a conventional antidepressant.

Because of the risk of abuse and side effects, Spravato can only be administered in a doctor’s office, where patients can be observed for two hours after taking a dose. A single dose will cost about $900.

The FDA has called the herbal supplement kratom an opioid because it acts on opioid receptors, but the agency has not taken that step with ketamine. Given current attitudes about opioids, it’s fair to say the FDA would have never approved Spravato if it was considered an opiate.

W6734OCVVZFOVKK7ALAGDTJU7A.jpg

In addition to its medical uses, ketamine is used as a recreational party drug – known as “Special K” -- because it can cause hallucinations and intense dream-like states.

Whether taken to get high or to treat pain and depression, it’s clear that ketamine is a potent drug that has both harms and benefits. And experts say it needs to be viewed with caution until we know with more certainty how it works.

“Unfortunately, when one approaches ketamine as another antidepressant rather than a drug of abuse, this type of trap is easy to fall into, and in the end, such mistakes can be catastrophic,” Schatzberg said in his commentary. “We have witnessed four decades of supposedly new and safer opioids that have turned out often to be, if anything, even more abusable and lethal."

Surgeons Reduce Rx Opioids Without Increasing Pain

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Surgeons in Michigan have reduced the amount of opioid medication prescribed to patients recovering from common operations by nearly a third -- without causing patients to feel more postoperative pain.

In a new research letter published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a team from the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network (OPEN) reported on the results of a statewide effort to get surgical teams to follow prescribing guidelines for postoperative pain.

In just one year, surgeons at 43 Michigan hospitals reduced the number of opioid pills prescribed to patients after nine common operations, from an average of 26 pills per patient to an average of 18.

The surgeries included minor hernia repair, appendix and gallbladder removal, and hysterectomies. Most were minimally invasive laparoscopic surgeries.

The ratings patients gave for their post-surgical pain and satisfaction didn't change from the ratings given by patients treated in the six months before opioids were reduced.

bigstock--173949028.jpg

Researchers say patients only took about half the opioids prescribed to them, even as the prescription sizes shrank. They attribute this to improved counseling about pain expectations and non-opioid pain control options.

"The success of the statewide effort suggests an opportunity for other states to build on Michigan's experience, and room for even further reductions in prescription size," said Michael Englesbe, MD, a University of Michigan surgery professor. "At the same time, we need to make sure that patients also know how to safely dispose of any leftover opioids they don't take."

The study involved over 11,700 patients who had operations at hospitals participating in the Michigan Surgical Quality Collaborative. About half of the patients also filled out surveys sent to their homes after their operations, asking about their pain, satisfaction and opioid use after surgery.

The Michigan-OPEN team has been working since 2016 to reduce opioid prescribing and quantify the appropriate number of pills patients should take. Their research led to the the development of new guidelines that were first tested on gallbladder surgery patients before being expanded to other types of surgery.

Some hospitals have stopped giving opioids to surgical patients. Patients at Cleveland Clinic Akron General Hospital get acetaminophen, gabapentin and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to manage their pain before and after colorectal operations – and their surgeons say the treatment results in better patient outcomes

It’s a common misconception that many patients become addicted to opioids after surgery. A 2016 Canadian study, for example, found that long term opioid use after surgery is rare, with less than one percent of older adults still taking opioid pain medication a year after major elective surgery.

Another large study in the British Medical Journal found similar results. Only 0.2% of patients who were prescribed opioids for post-surgical pain were later diagnosed with opioid dependence, abuse or a non-fatal overdose.

Another fallacy is that leftover pain medication is often stolen, sold or given away. The DEA says less than one percent of legally prescribed opioids are diverted.

Panel Recommends All Adults Be Screened for Illicit Drug Use

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The next time you visit a doctor, he or she may want to know more than what medications you take or if you consume alcohol.

An influential national panel of health experts is recommending for the first time that U.S. doctors screen all adult patients for illicit drug use, including the nonmedical use of opioids and other prescription drugs. “Nonmedical” means the use of a friend’s or relative’s prescription or buying medications off the street. It can also mean using a legal medication more frequently or in higher doses than prescribed.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force concluded with “moderate certainty” that screening for illicit drug use would be beneficial because it would lead to a more accurate diagnosis and treatment for substance abuse.

Screening typically involves questions about drug use and frequency. This can include questions on routine intake forms or asking patients directly when they visit with a healthcare provider. Screening does not include drug testing, although nothing would stop a doctor from ordering such tests.

bigstock-Doctor-And-Patient-42818620.jpg

“Illicit drug use can have a devastating impact on individuals and families,” said task force co-vice chair Karina Davidson, PhD, a professor of behavioral medicine at the Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra University. “Clinicians can help by screening their adult patients and connecting people who use illicit drugs to the care they need to get better.”

About 11.5% of Americans age 18 years or older reported using cannabis or illicit drugs in a national survey. Illicit drug use is more common in young adults ages 18 to 25 years (24.2%) than in older adults (9.5%).  About one in five illicit drug users reported the nonmedical use of psychotherapeutic drugs, including opioids, pain relievers, or other medications. Less than 8% reported using cocaine, hallucinogens, or inhalants.

Although illicit drug use is relatively common among adolescents (7.9%) aged 12 to 17, the task force said there was not enough evidence to support screening for Americans under the age of 18.

“We want to help prevent illicit drug use in teens, so we’re calling for more research on the benefits of screening,” said task force member Carol Mangione, MD, chief of general internal medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “Clinicians should continue to use their professional judgement to determine what’s best for their teen patients.”

The task force’s draft report is available for public comment through September 9. After the task force reviews the comments, it will issue a final report. The panel’s recommendations are not mandatory for healthcare providers, but like many federal guidelines – such as the 2016 CDC opioid guideline -- they could be adopted as a “standard of care” by medical associations and healthcare systems.  Some already recommend that providers routinely screen their patients about illicit drug use.

AG’s Call for Weakening of HIPAA Laws

Federal laws that have long protected the privacy of patients undergoing addiction treatment may also be changing. The National Association of Attorneys General wants Congress to end regulations that prevent doctors from sharing information about their patients’ addiction treatment histories.

In a letter recently sent to congressional leaders, 39 state attorneys general called on Congress to “replace the cumbersome, out-of-date, privacy rules” contained in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). One section of the law – known as 42 CFR Part 2 – sets strict rules about disclosing patient records for substance abuse treatment.

“These privacy rules were created more than 40 years ago in a time of intense stigma surrounding substance use disorder treatment. They were created to assure patients that they would not face adverse legal or civil consequences when seeking treatment by protecting confidentiality of substance use disorder patient records,” the AG’s said.

“Unfortunately, they now serve to perpetuate that stigma, as the principle underlying these rules is that substance use disorder treatment is shameful and records of it should be withheld from other treatment providers in ways that we do not withhold records of treatment of other chronic diseases. While maintaining confidentiality is imperative to encouraging individuals to seek and obtain treatment, the inability to share records among providers can burden coordination of care, potentially resulting in harm to the patient.”

Two bills under consideration in Congress, the Overdose Prevention and Patient Safety Act and the Protecting Jessica Grubb’s Legacy Act would amend 42 CFR Part 2 to allow for addiction treatment records to be shared. The bills have been endorsed by over 40 national healthcare organizations, including the American Hospital Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

Study: Prescription Drug Databases Overestimate Opioid Misuse

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Prescription drug monitoring has long been seen as the gold standard for tracking the opioid crisis. Patients who fill an opioid prescription for more than three months are considered long-term users with a higher risk of misuse, addiction and overdose. Many pharmacy chains assign a “risk score” to these patients and their doctors could even get a warning letter from the government.

But in a small study of emergency room patients, Canadian researchers found the risk of opioid misuse by long-term users is small and one out of five patients who fill opioid prescriptions don’t even use them. Their findings suggest that prescription databases alone are a poor way to measure opioid misuse.

“The rate of long‐term opioid use reported by filled prescription database studies should not be used as a surrogate for opioid misuse,” said lead author Raoul Daoust, MD, a professor and researcher in the Department of Family Medicine and Emergency Medicine at the University of Montreal.

Daoust and his colleagues surveyed 524 patients who were discharged from a hospital emergency department (ED) with an opioid prescription for acute pain. Instead of just relying on a database to track their prescriptions, the researchers asked the patients about their opioid use.

bigstock-Mature-doctor-working-on-lapto-14508200.jpg

Three months after discharge, only 47 patients – about 9 percent – said they were still using opioids. Of those, 72% said they used opioids to treat their initial pain and 19% were using the drugs to treat a new pain condition.

The remaining four patients said they used opioids for another reason, suggesting possible misuse. That’s less than one percent (0.8%) of the original 524 patients.

“Within the limit of our study, our results suggest that the risk of long‐term opioid use for reasons other than pain is low for ED discharged patients with an opioid prescription treating an acute pain condition,” Daoust reported in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine.

Daoust’s findings are controversial because they throw into question the widely accepted theory that all opioid prescribing is risky, whether it’s for chronic or acute pain. The methodology used in his study was questioned by one critic.

"Emergency physicians should not be reassured by the authors' findings. The lack of a denominator, poor response rate (56%), and applied definition of misuse are significant limitations,” said Gail D'Onofrio, MD, a professor of emergency medicine and chair in the department of emergency medicine at Yale University.

D'Onofrio cites a 2017 CDC study, which found that the probability of long-term opioid use increases sharply after the first few days of treatment.

“Transitions from acute to long-term therapy can begin to occur quickly: the chances of chronic use begin to increase after the third day supplied and rise rapidly thereafter,” CDC researchers warned.

But that analysis is based solely on the number of opioid prescriptions – not actual opioid use. And Daoust found that studies like that are a poor way to measure risk.

“These studies used filled prescriptions databases that could overestimate opioid use since not all patients filling an opioid prescription consumed them. As a case in point, in this study, 21% of patients who filled their opioid prescription after the initial ED visit did not consume them,” Daoust reported.

What is the risk of long-term opioid use after an emergency room visit? In a large 2017 study by the Mayo Clinic, only about 1 percent of ER patients given an opioid prescription progressed to long term use – similar to what Daoust found.

"Our paper lays to rest the notion that emergency physicians are handing out opioids like candy," said lead author Molly Moore Jeffery, PhD, scientific director of the Mayo Clinic Division of Emergency Medicine Research. “Most opioid prescriptions written in the emergency department are for shorter duration, written for lower daily doses and less likely to be for long-acting formulations."

A 2018 study also questioned the value of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) which have long been promoted as critical tools in the fight against opioid abuse. The study found little evidence that PDMPs are reducing overdoses and that they may lead to unintended consequences such as patients turning to street drugs for pain relief.

Are Rx Opioids Scapegoats for the Opioid Crisis?

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The Washington Post recently published a series of stories about the volume of opioid medication distributed over the past several years in the United States. Over 76 billion pills were distributed from 2002 through 2012.

That sounds like a huge amount, but it is difficult to know what the number means. What is clear is that the stories are meant to suggest the number of pills is excessive and responsible for the rise in opioid overdose deaths. 

This presumed correlation is one reason for the recent lawsuits that have been filed against opioid manufacturers and distributors. It has also spawned policies that appear to have worsened, not prevented, overdoses.

Though the situation has been framed largely as a prescribing problem, the reasons for the drug crisis are many. While overprescribing has certainly been a factor, it is probably less important than other factors, such as joblessness, homelessness and despair, which are more challenging to address.

Let’s look at the data about the relationship between opioid prescriptions and overdose death rates. The number of opioid prescriptions in the United States peaked in 2012 and began a steady decline. By 2017, they reached a 15-year low.

bigstock--200145217.jpg

Despite the decline in the number of opioids prescribed, overdoses from all opioids – both legal and illegal -- continued to increase. Overdoses involving prescription opioids represent only about 25% of the total number of drug overdoses.  

Obviously, something more than the supply of prescription opioids is driving overdoses higher.

No Correlation Between Opioid Prescriptions and Overdoses

After winning a year-long court battle with the Justice Department, the Post and HD Media, publisher of the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, were able to access data from the DEA’s Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS).

The information in the database shows that, between 2006 and 2012, West Virginia received the largest per capita amount of prescription opioids. The state also experienced the highest opioid-related death rate during that period. Is there a correlation?

Kentucky also had a high number of pills and a high death rate, but as Jacob Sullum recently reported in Reason, Kentucky’s death rate in 2017 was actually lower than Maryland’s and Utah’s, where prescription rates are substantially lower. He also pointed out that although Oregon’s prescription rate was among the highest in the country, the rate of deaths involving pain pills in Oregon was just 3.5 per 100,000, lower than the rates in most states. 

Sullum further showed that Kentucky, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Tennessee were among the 10 states with the highest per capita prescribed pills during the 2006-2012 period. But they were not the states with the highest overdose rates. 

In a separate analysis, the CDC and Agency for Healthcare Research Quality found no correlation -- not even a weak one -- between opioid prescribing rates and overdoses when comparing data from each state. 

In addition, the rate of opioid prescribing is highest nationally for people 55 years and older, but that age group has the lowest rate.  

This lack of correlation between opioid overdoses and the volume of prescribed opioids is consistent internationally. In 2016, England prescribed the most opioids and saw the most overdose deaths in its history. However, the drug responsible for many of those deaths was heroin, not prescription opioids. 

There is a raging opioid crisis in West Africa where, despite a low prescription rate, the number of overdoses has surged

In 2018, Scotland's drug overdose rate exceeded that of the United States -- largely because of heroin. There is no evidence of an overall increase in opioid prescribing in Scotland. 

No Simple Answers to the Opioid Crisis

It is clear that the data does not support a simple answer to the opioid crisis. Focusing all of our efforts on decreasing the supply of prescriptions will not solve the problem and is already creating unintended consequences.

In fact, cocaine and methamphetamine were involved in more overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2018 than prescription opioids. As the supply of prescription opioids has decreased due to the policies of the last few years, people have moved from prescription opioids to other illicit drugs.

The solution to the opioid crisis must be multi-pronged. Overprescribing played a role in causing the crisis, but sociological factors appear to have driven the demand. We must consider what prompts people to turn to drugs in despair. A recent study published in SSM-Population shows job loss bears a significant correlation to opioid-caused deaths.

In addition, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Princeton University economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton (recipient of the 2015 Nobel prize in economics) showed mortality from substance use was linked to declining economic opportunity and financial insecurity.

Solving the drug crisis will not be easy. However, the disenfranchised members of our most impoverished communities deserve viable solutions to their problems. It is crucial to understand the degree to which job loss and hopelessness contribute to the drug problem.

Reputable data proves that the volume of opioids prescribed is not solely, or even primarily, responsible for the opioid crisis. Let’s focus on what is responsible.

_DSC8561.jpg

Lynn R. Webster, MD, is a vice president of scientific affairs for PRA Health Sciences and consults with the pharmaceutical industry. He is author of the award-winning book, “The Painful Truth” and co-producer of the documentary, “It Hurts Until You Die.”

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.

Use of NSAIDs Risky for Osteoarthritis Patients

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

It’s long been known that nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen and naproxen can raise the risk of cardiovascular problems. A large new study in Canada has documented how NSAIDs can significantly raise the risk of heart disease, congestive heart failure and stroke in people with osteoarthritis.

Osteoarthritis (OA) is a joint disorder that leads to thinning of cartilage and progressive joint damage. NSAIDs are frequently used to treat the pain and inflammation caused by OA.

The Canadian study, published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatology, looked at nearly 7,750 osteoarthritis patients in British Columbia and compared them with a control group of over 23,000 patients without OA. The average age of the participants was 65 and a little over half were women.

The risk of developing cardiovascular disease was found to be about 23% higher among people with OA than the control group. Researchers attributed about 41% of that increased risk to the use of NSAIDs.

bigstock-Heart-Attack-3185922.jpg

NSAIDs appeared to play a significant role in several cardiovascular problems. The risk of congestive heart failure was 42% higher among people with OA, followed by a 17% greater risk of heart disease and a 14% greater risk of stroke.

"To the best of our knowledge, this is the first longitudinal study to evaluate the mediating role of NSAID use in the relationship between osteoarthritis and cardiovascular disease in a large population-based sample," said senior author Aslam Anis, PhD, of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.

"Our results indicate that osteoarthritis is an independent risk factor for cardiovascular disease and suggest a substantial proportion of the increased risk is due to the use of NSAIDs. This is highly relevant because NSAIDs are some of the most commonly used drugs to manage pain in patients with osteoarthritis."

The association of cardiovascular disease with NSAIDs is consistent with previous research.  A large international study in 2017, for example, found that prescription strength NSAIDs raises the risk of a heart attack as soon as the first week of use.

NSAIDs are used to alleviate pain and reduce inflammation, and are found in a wide variety of over-the-counter products, including cold and flu remedies. They are found in so many products -- such as Advil and Motrin -- that many consumers may not be aware how often they use NSAIDs. 

Canada adopted guidelines in 2017 that recommend NSAIDs as an alternative to opioid pain medication. The guideline makes no mention of the health risks associated with NSAIDs, but focuses on their cost effectiveness.

“NSAID-based treatment may have lower mean costs and higher effectiveness relative to opioids,” the guideline states. “Naproxen-based regimens in particular may be more cost effective compared to opioids and other NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen and celecoxib.”

Opioid guidelines released in 2016 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommend NSAIDs as an alternative to opioids, but acknowledge the medications “do have risks, including gastrointestinal bleeding or perforation as well as renal and cardiovascular risks.”

In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration ordered warning labels for all NSAIDs to indicate they increase the risk of a fatal heart attack or stroke. The FDA warning does not apply to aspirin.

The European Society of Cardiology recommends limited use of NSAIDs by patients who are at risk of heart failure. People already diagnosed with heart failure should refrain from using NSAIDs altogether.

CDC: Still Not Enough Naloxone   

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Trump Administration is stepping up efforts to increase prescribing of naloxone, an overdose recovery drug credited with saving thousands of lives.

Although naloxone prescriptions have increased dramatically, a new CDC Vital Signs report estimates that nearly 9 million additional prescriptions could have been dispensed last year if every patient with a high-dose opioid prescription was offered naloxone.  Patients are considered “high risk” if they take an opioid dose of 50 morphine milligram equivalent (MME) or more per day.

Naloxone has been used for years by first responders and emergency medical providers to revive overdose victims. Current efforts are focused on expanding access to the drug by prescribing it directly to patients considered at risk of an overdose.

In 2018, CDC researchers say only one naloxone prescription was dispensed for every 70 high-dose opioid prescriptions nationwide. Naloxone “under-prescribing” was even more acute in rural counties, which are nearly three times more likely to be ranked low in naloxone dispensing than metropolitan counties.

Naloxone2.jpg

“It is clear from the data that there is still much needed education around the important role naloxone plays in reducing overdose deaths. The time is now to ensure all individuals who are prescribed high-dose opioids also receive naloxone as a potential life-saving intervention,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement.

Ironically, federal policies contribute to the under-prescribing. In 2018, most (71%) Medicare prescriptions for naloxone required a copay, compared to 42% for commercial insurance.

In January, the Food and Drug Administration encouraged drug makers to make naloxone available over-the-counter without a prescription. The FDA even developed an OTC label for Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray that sells for about $135. Seven months later, the FDA could not confirm to PNN that any company had submitted an application for an OTC version of naloxone.

Last year the Department of Health and Human Services released guidance urging doctors to “strongly consider” prescribing naloxone to patients on any dose of opioids when they also have respiratory conditions or obstructive sleep apnea, are co-prescribed benzodiazepines, have a mental health or substance abuse disorder, or a history of illegal drug use or prescription opioid misuse.

Many states are also taking steps to increase naloxone prescribing. California now requires doctors to “offer” naloxone prescriptions to pain patients deemed at high risk of an overdose. State law does not make the prescriptions mandatory, yet some patients say they were “blackmailed” by pharmacists who refused to fill their opioid scripts unless naloxone was also purchased. Patients around the country report similar experiences.   

Unintended Consequences

The drumbeat for naloxone comes at a time when sales are already booming. There were 556,000 naloxone prescriptions in 2018, twice as many as in 2017.

There’s no doubt naloxone saves lives, but some researchers say the drug has had little effect on the overdose crisis and may in fact be making it worse. In a recent study published by SSRN, two economics professors warned of “unintended consequences” if naloxone becomes more widely available.

“We expect these unintended consequences to occur through two channels. First, the reduced risk of death makes opioid abuse more appealing, leading some to increase their opioid use — or use more potent forms of the drug — when they have naloxone as a safety net. Some of those abusers may become criminally active to fund their increased drug use,” wrote Jennifer Doleac, PhD, Texas A&M University, and co-author Anita Mukherjee, PhD, University of Wisconsin.

“Furthermore, expanding naloxone access might not in fact reduce mortality. Though the risk of death per opioid use falls, an increase in the number or potency of uses means the expected effect on mortality is ambiguous.”

The researchers said there were anecdotal reports of “naloxone parties” where attendees used heroin and prescription opioids to get high knowing they could be revived. News reports have also quoted first responders who are frustrated that the same opioid abusers “are saved again and again by naloxone without getting treatment.”