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.”

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“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.

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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."

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.

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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.

Addiction and the 2020 Presidential Race

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

I found the recent story about Hunter Biden's drug and alcohol problems disturbing, not because he has an addiction — there's no shame in that — but because of the way the media tiptoes around the problem.

There seems be some reluctance to discuss Hunter's problem because of the way it may affect his father – former Vice President Joe Biden – and Biden’s bid for the presidency in 2020. To me, this illustrates a serious barrier to addressing the terrible disease of addiction.

Drugs, Politicians and Their Families

Marijuana is not considered a hard drug today, but it was considered a serious drug of abuse 27 years ago, when President Bill Clinton admitted he had used it. The stigma attached to using marijuana at the time was such that he disingenuously claimed he didn't inhale.

Of course, Clinton wasn't the only president who used or abused chemicals. Nor was he the only president whose reputation took a hit when his drug use was exposed to the public:

President Richard Nixon was reported to have an alcohol problem that worsened as his presidency neared its end.

President George W. Bush reportedly used cocaine in his youth and admitted “drinking too much.” ABC News even polled voters to find out whether his cocaine use might affect their willingness to vote for him.

President Barack Obama admitted that he used marijuana and cocaine. He was also a cigarette smoker with a nicotine addiction, and dealt with media inquiries about his attempts to quit throughout his presidency.

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Hunter Biden is not the only family member of a presidential candidate with addiction.

Jeb Bush's daughter, Noelle Bush, had a drug problem. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daughter, Chiara de Blasio, abused alcohol and drugs while dealing with depression. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's father has struggled with alcohol his whole life. And President Trump’s brother, Fred Trump, Jr., died of complications related to alcoholism, which contributes to an estimated 88,000 deaths per year.

What Do Candidates Know?

Clearly, the endemic nature of addiction in our culture means that we should be interested in how the candidates deal with the presence of drugs in their lives. Are they able to talk openly about drug use instead of letting it remain a dark and shameful secret? Are they compassionate and supportive of family members who struggle?

To what extent do they personally use drugs and alcohol in daily life? And by extension, how well do they cope with stress? These are relevant, appropriate questions for candidates auditioning for a job that impacts the entire world.

It would be inappropriate to vote for a candidate solely on the basis of whether or not their loved ones struggle with addiction. But one criteria we can use for voting is a candidate’s positions on the critical issue of addiction in America. Here is how I would evaluate a candidate:

1) How much awareness do they demonstrate on the basic issues, including:

  • Do they know the difference in the prevalence of prescription opioid vs. illicit opioid abuse?

  • Do they know that addiction is not determined by the drug, but by genetic and environmental factors?

  • Do they know that the volume of pills prescribed to people in various parts of the country does not determine the number of overdose deaths?

  • Do they know that the prevalence of overdose deaths correlates with the loss of jobs and lack of income opportunity?

2) Will they de-stigmatize the disease of addiction by:

  • Decriminalizing the use of drugs?

  • Acknowledging addiction is a disease?

  • Understanding that babies cannot be born addicted?

  • Educating people that physical dependence and withdrawal can occur without addiction?

3) Do they favor access to substance abuse treatment in a timely fashion for everyone who needs it, regardless of their ability to pay?

4) Will they advocate for people in pain to receive opioid therapy when appropriate at the dose determined by their provider, rather than by the government?

5) Will they acknowledge the unintended consequences of the CDC opioid prescribing guideline?

Shining a Light on Addiction

The ideal candidate should recognize the tragedies associated with all addictions, not just with prescription opioids. He or she must recognize that addiction is part of being human, and that some people are more vulnerable to addiction than others, just as some people are more vulnerable to developing cancer or heart disease.

Whoever becomes or remains our president must shine the light of information on addiction, rather than hide it in the darkness of misinformation, shame and denial. 

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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.”

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

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.

‘Opioid of the Future’ Postponed

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is tapping the brakes on NKTR-181, an experimental opioid pain medication that has less abuse potential than traditional opioids like oxycodone or hydrocodone.

In an SEC filing, Nektar Therapeutics said it received a letter from the FDA on July 23 saying the agency was postponing all advisory committee meetings for opioid analgesics, including one scheduled for August 21 to discus Nektar’s new drug application for NKTR-181.

The FDA was due to make a final decision on NKTR-181 eight days later, but that too is apparently being postponed while the agency considers “a number of scientific and policy issues relating to this class of drugs.”

Nektar called NKTR-181 the “opioid of the future” because it is the first full mu-opioid agonist that can provide pain relief without the euphoria or “high” that can lead to abuse and addiction.

The molecular structure of NKTR-181 is designed to have low permeability across the blood-brain barrier, which slows its rate of entry into the brain.

In a Phase III clinical study, patients with chronic back pain reported that their pain scores dropped an average of 65% when taking NKTR-181 twice daily. Safety studies also found that recreational drug users had significantly less “drug liking” of NKTR-181 when compared to oxycodone.

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The research was so promising the FDA gave NKTR-181 “fast track” designation to speed its development. Nektar executives told PNN two years ago they were hopeful the drug would be approved in late 2018, with a commercial launch early this year.

Obviously that didn’t happen. And the FDA’s fast track has turned into a slow walk.

Two FDA advisory committees met last month and decided “much better-quality data” was needed before approving any new opioids — even ones with low risk of abuse.  

The agency has been under growing public and political pressure to tighten its regulation of opioids. In February, a 60 Minutes report claimed the FDA “opened the floodgates” to the opioid epidemic by approving the use of OxyContin for chronic pain. The following month, the agency received a petition from Public Citizen calling for a moratorium on new opioid approvals because the agency “can no longer be trusted” due to its “poor record” of regulating opioids.

On July 25, Howard Robin, Nektar’s President and CEO, sold 100,000 shares of Nektar for $3.1 million. A spokesman said the sale was previously scheduled due to expiring options. The company’s chief financial officer and a director also sold shares this month. Nektar shares (NASDAQ: NKTR) lost about 10% of their value after the SEC filing was made public.

‘Trapped in a Bottle’ Billboard Misses the Mark

By Dr. Lynn Webster, PNN Columnist

The mission of The Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey (PDFNJ) is to reduce substance use and misuse in New Jersey. The non-profit has received more than 200 advertising and public relations awards for its public service campaigns.

Much of the organization’s work is laudable, but their new "Trapped in a Bottle" campaign spreads misleading and harmful information about opioid medication.

Digital billboards of a man or woman trapped in a prescription bottle appeared in Times Square and on mass transit. The billboards end with a warning: “In just 5 days, opioid dependency can begin.”

Physical Dependence vs. Addiction

The ad talks about dependency, but it conflates dependency with addiction.

Physical dependence is a process that starts with exposure to the first pill. Discontinuance of an opioid may lead to withdrawal — but the hyperbolic ad can easily be mistaken to be about addiction rather than dependency.

Dependency is a normal neuroadaptation that takes place when certain brain receptors are exposed to drugs, including opioids. These drugs change the structure and function of a receptor with continual exposure, and that can result in physical dependence. If the drugs are abruptly stopped, that can cause withdrawal.

Using opioid medication for as little as five days will almost never induce withdrawal. And even if withdrawal occurs after taking a short course of opioids, it does not mean the person is addicted or has an opioid-use disorder.

The "5 days" concept is meaningless because it spreads unhelpful myths about opioids. I have prescribed opioids to thousands of patients and have never seen a patient experience withdrawal when stopping within a week or even two. Managed properly, the overwhelming majority of patients experience no negative effects from dependency.

Addiction, on the other hand, requires much more than simply ingesting a pill, and it does not occur in any specific number of days. The development of this disease is a process that involves multiple factors and occurs over time.

It is important to remember that addiction is not resident in the drug, but rather in human biology. Exposure to an opioid is a necessary, but by itself is insufficient to cause the disease.

For people who develop an addiction, opioids provide a reward, and the brain seeks to repeat the pleasurable experience. For a vulnerable person, one pill can be so rewarding that it drives pleasure-seeking behavior that can lead to addiction. But that does not happen in five days or on any other timetable.

This is not the first time PDFNJ has created over-the-top digital billboards to scare people away from using prescription opioids.

A 2016 billboard intended to frighten parents asked: "Would you give your child HEROIN to remove a wisdom tooth?"

This melodramatic question was followed with: “Ask your dentist how prescription drugs can lead to heroin abuse." The innuendo is neither educational nor informative.

It's understandable that an advertising agency would have trouble accurately conveying the problems of drug dependence and addiction when the news media also has difficulty communicating the facts.

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Inaccurate Portrayal of the Opioid Crisis

In a recent WPIX article describing the “Trapped in a Bottle” campaign, Mary Murphy wrote that “drug overdoses killed more than 72,000 people in the United States in 2017, a new record driven by the deadly opioid crisis.”

Murphy used the statistic to help illustrate the harm of prescription opioids. But prescription opioids were involved in less than 20,000 of those drug deaths. If Murphy wanted to use a large number, she should have said there were 150,000 deaths from substance abuse in 2018. This would include alcohol-related deaths. Of course, alcohol delivers its poison in a bottle, too.

Murphy writes that a large percentage of drug overdoses can be attributed to heroin or fentanyl. Indeed, these are major sources of opioid deaths, but she fails to point out that neither heroin or illicit fentanyl are prescription opioids. Nor are they commonly found in a bottle. Again, her implication is that prescription opioids are at the heart of this crisis.

Concepts Video Productions, which is based in Towaco, New Jersey, produced the digital billboard. “Each year, we select a pro-bono project that will impact the world,” said Collette Liantonio, creative director of the production company.

The “Trapped in a Bottle” billboard, however, may do nothing for the world besides demonstrate how imperfectly most people understand the reason for the drug crisis and reinforce prevalent myths about it.

Perhaps Concepts Video Productions should consider creating a billboard that shows someone who is unable to find a job that pays a decent wage, and seeks to escape poverty and hopelessness with drugs. Economic and social woes, rather than prescription drugs, are at the core of our country's drug crisis.

Or perhaps Concepts Video Productions should create a giant digital billboard full of people with chronic pain who can’t get out of bed because their doctors refuse to prescribe the medication they need.

Using fear to solve the drug crisis will never be successful.

Moreover, knowing a drug's potential to lead to physical dependence or addiction will not prevent anyone from seeking a psychological experience to escape painful life experiences. The answer is to address the emotional and physical needs that create dependency or addiction in the first place.

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

You can find him on Twitter: @LynnRWebsterMD.

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.

Indonesia May Ban Kratom Exports

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A possible ban on the growth and export of kratom in Indonesia is raising alarm among kratom users in the U.S. and around the world.  About 95% of the world’s supply of kratom comes from Indonesia, where the herbal supplement has become a lucrative cash crop.

Kratom leaves are harvested from a tree that grows in southeast Asia, where it has been used for centuries as a natural stimulant and pain reliever. In recent years, millions of Americans have started using kratom to treat pain, addiction, anxiety and depression.

Kratom advocates say the U.S. Food and Drug Administration – which opposes the use of kratom for any medical condition – has been lobbying the Indonesian government to ban kratom farming. Current plans by the Indonesian Ministry of Health call for a 5-year transition period to allow kratom growers to shift to other crops.

“If this ban is allowed to go into effect, it will effectively end consumer access to kratom in the United States, and the FDA won’t have to do anything more to declare victory in the War on Kratom,” said C. M. “Mac” Haddow, a lobbyist for the American Kratom Association (AKA), a group of kratom vendors and consumers.

“Even if some black-market kratom gets into the United States after the Indonesian ban goes into effect, it will be so expensive that only the uber-rich will be able to afford it. And it will likely be extremely dangerous to consume because there will be no standards on growing, harvesting, and shipping.”

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FDA Denies Involvement

An FDA spokesman said the agency has “inquired” about kratom in Indonesia, but denied making any effort to have it banned.

“The FDA has inquired to understand the current status of kratom under Indonesian law. However, the FDA has not advocated either formally or informally about a change in law in Indonesia or any other country relative to kratom,” the spokesman said in an email to PNN.

The AKA sent a delegation to Indonesia last month to meet with the Ministry of Health and other government officials. Among the attendees was Duncan Macrae, the founder of Kratom.com and one of the first commercial growers of kratom in Indonesia. Macrae told PNN the initial meeting went well.

“When we left Jakarta we were given the green light that there would always be a legitimate path to export kratom even though the Indonesian government will almost definitely regulate and make kratom illegal for domestic use in Indonesia,” Macrae wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, since there was some (in my opinion) unnecessary outreaching to other departments such as the Agriculture & Quarantine department and also the department of trade, this has stirred up another hornet’s nest.” 

According to the AKA, the Ministry of Agriculture sent a memo in the past week to various agencies in the Indonesian government recommending the ban on kratom be formalized at all levels of government.  

Macrae fears that kratom will also be classified as an illegal controlled substance in Indonesia, which would effectively ban its growth and export.  

Was the FDA involved? For sure yes! Unfortunately, this went through the U.S. embassy in Jakarta as well.
— Duncan Macrae, Kratom Supplier

“This means it has no scientific or medicinal use and will even prevent further research from being done on the plant in Indonesia,” said Macrae. “Was the FDA involved? For sure yes! Unfortunately, this went through the U.S. embassy in Jakarta as well.” 

A leading Indonesian politician called on the government to ignore the “world health mafia” and conduct research on the risks and benefits of kratom before banning it.

"Once again the government does not play a ban without doing deep professional research. It is tantamount to throwing away the nation's own assets. In the end Indonesia will only be an importer of finished products from kratom leaves," Daniel Johan, Deputy Chairperson of the House of Representatives, told a local news agency. "Indonesia must master its downstream products so that it is truly beneficial for the people of Indonesia and the world, so that we do not even enter the format of world health mafia war."

Kratom is already banned for domestic use in Indonesia, although the export of raw kratom product is allowed. In 2016, about 400 tons of kratom were shipped every month from Indonesia’s top growing region -- worth about $130 million annually, according to a report from Agence France-Presse. Most of those exports went to the U.S.

The FDA has linked kratom to dozens of fatal overdoses -- although multiple substances were involved in nearly all of those deaths. The FDA has also found salmonella bacteria and heavy metals in a relatively small number of kratom products. 

Last year, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommended to the DEA that kratom be classified as a Schedule I substance – which would effectively ban it nationwide. Currently, the DEA doesn't even list kratom in its annual report on drug threats. 

The AKA is planning to send another delegation to Indonesia this month to lobby against a kratom ban.

Opioid Addiction Rates Redux

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The Oklahoma opioid trial is garnering attention for what could be a pivotal role in determining the liability of Johnson & Johnson and other drug makers in the opioid crisis. A key point hinges on a seemingly simple question: What percentage of people on long-term opioid therapy develop addiction?

Dr. Timothy Fong, a UCLA psychiatrist and defense expert, refuted claims by prosecution witness Dr. Andrew Kolodny that people who take opioid pain medication over extended periods have a 25% chance of becoming addicted. Fong said other studies suggest that patients who take opioids over long periods might have addiction rates closer to 1 to 3 percent.  

There is an extensive literature on these estimates, including NIH studies and published research from leading experts. I covered some of them in a PNN column last year (see “How Common Is Opioid Addiction?”)

“The best and most recent estimate of the percentage of patients who will develop an addiction after being prescribed an opioid analgesic for long-term management of their chronic pain stands at around 8 percent,” NIDA director Nora Volkow, MD, told Opioid Watch.

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Why are there so many different estimates? There is an important distinction between the incidence and prevalence of a medical condition. Briefly, incidence represents the probability of occurrence of a given medical condition in a population within a specified period of time. In contrast, prevalence gives the proportion of a particular population found to be affected by a medical condition.

The distinction is not just semantics and is critical in epidemiology. As explained in Physiopedia, “incidence conveys information about the risk of contracting the disease, whereas prevalence indicates how widespread the disease is.”

Besides obvious difficulties in determining incidence (the necessary clinical trials will never receive approval) and measuring prevalence (the required public health monitoring is well beyond our current capability), we instead have to rely on proxy measures derived from prescription drug databases, medical records and surveys.

We also have to make decisions about the “specified period of time” when determining incidence and the assessment of the “medical condition’ for prevalence.

There is no universally agreed upon time frame for the development of addiction or opioid use disorder after opioid initiation, whether medical or non-medical. Similarly, the definition of opioid use disorder has evolved over the years.

Further, in many cases incidence and prevalence are calculated based on assumptions made by researchers. For instance, in an Annual Review of Public Health article co-authored by Dr. Kolodny, a 2010 study is cited that found 26% of chronic pain patients met the criteria for opioid dependence and 35% met the criteria for opioid use disorder. This seems to be the source of the 25% claim used by Kolodny in the Oklahoma opioid trial.

But the 2010 study doesn’t distinguish between incidence and prevalence. It is also not clear how many of the surveyed pain patients had an opioid use disorder diagnosis before the onset of medical opioid therapy.

A similar critique can be levied against the authors of a 1980 letter in The New England Journal of Medicine that claimed opioid addiction was rare in pain patients. Some have claimed publication of the letter helped launch the opioid crisis. 

The problem with all of these studies is that they are retrospective in nature, limited to a particular patient population, and constrained by the diagnostic criteria in use at the time. And the estimates derived from such studies do not necessarily implicate or exonerate Johnson & Johnson.

Moreover, it is possible that addiction rates have varied over time and were influenced by factors that were not yet understood or even known. For example, recent research has found an association between opioid overdoses and drug diversion among family and friends, cold weather, altitude above sea level, and medical cannabis legalization.

The NIH work that Dr. Volkow refers to in her Opioid Watch interview works to account for all of these factors. So as Volkow stated last year, the “best and most recent estimate" stands at about eight percent. Improved public health surveillance, epidemiological research, and patient monitoring may shift this number up or down, and will increase confidence in the estimate.

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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.