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.

Study Finds Antidepressants Make Tramadol Less Effective for Pain Relief

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Common antidepressants interact with the opioid medication tramadol to make it less effective for pain relief, according to a small new study from University Hospitals (UH) in Cleveland. The findings suggest that some patients who exceed their prescribed dose of tramadol may be under-medicated and are seeking more effective pain relief.

Prescriptions for tramadol – which is sold under the brand names Ultram and ConZip – have increased in recent years because it is widely perceived as a “safer” opioid with less rick of addiction. Many patients, however, say tramadol is not as effective as hydrocodone, oxycodone and other opioids.  

UH researchers reviewed the prescription records of 152 patients who received tramadol for at least 24 hours.

Those patients who were also taking the antidepressants Prozac (fluoxetine), Paxil (paroxetine) or Wellbutrin (bupropion) required three times more tramadol per day to control their breakthrough pain, compared to patients not taking the antidepressants.

Previous studies on healthy volunteers have shown effects on blood levels when combining tramadol with those particular antidepressants. However, this was the first study to document the effects of this interaction in a real-world setting with pain patients.

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"We knew that there was a theoretical problem, but we didn't know what it meant as far as what's happening to pain control for patients," said Derek Frost, PharmD, a UH pharmacist and lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Pharmacotherapy.

Frost says millions of Americans may be suffering the ill effects of this drug-to-drug interaction.

"Tramadol relies on activation of the CYP2D6 enzyme to give you that pain control," Frost said. "This enzyme can be inhibited by medications that are strong CYP2D6 inhibitors, such as fluoxetine, paroxetine and bupropion.

“Many chronic pain patients are taking antidepressants, mainly selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), which many of these CYP2D6 inhibitors fit into. There are a lot of patients who experience both, unfortunately. The likelihood that somebody on one of these offending agents and tramadol is relatively high."

Frost says the problem has a relatively easy fix.

"We have a lot of other antidepressants available that are in the same class of medication that don't inhibit this particular enzyme, such as Zoloft (sertraline), (Celexa) citalopram and Lexapro (escitalopram)," he said. "You also have other options for pain control - non-opioid medications such as NSAIDs. If we need to use opioids, a scheduled morphine or a scheduled oxycodone would avoid this interaction."

Tramadol is a synthetic opioid that was rescheduled by the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2014 as a Schedule IV controlled substance, a category that means it has a low potential for abuse. That same year, hydrocodone was rescheduled as a Schedule II drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse. Many patients who were taking hydrocodone were switched to tramadol as a result of the rescheduling.

Opioid Pain Meds Rarely Involved in Suicide Attempts

By Pat Anson, Editor

Opioid pain medication is involved in less than 5 percent of the attempted suicides in the United States, according to a large new study of emergency room visits.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine studied a national database of more than one billion emergency department visits from 2006 to 2013, and found that antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs were far more likely to be used in an attempted suicide than opioid medication.

The findings appear to contradict numerous government and media reports suggesting that opioids play a significant role in the nation’s rising suicide rate.  A recent VA study, for example, found that veterans receiving the highest doses of opioid painkillers were more than twice as likely to die by suicide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides in the U.S. increased by 31 percent over the past decade and are now the 10th leading cause of death. In 2014, nearly 43,000 Americans committed suicide, three times the number of overdose deaths that were linked to prescription opioids.

The Johns Hopkins researchers were puzzled to find that while suicides had risen, there was no corresponding increase in attempted suicides. Their findings are published in the journal Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences.

"What stood out to us the most is that while the rate of fatal suicide has increased, the overall rate of nonfatal suicide attempts has not changed much over the years, nor have the patterns -- age, sex, seasonality, mechanism, etc. -- changed much," said lead author Joseph Canner, interim co-director of the Johns Hopkins Surgery Center for Outcomes Research.

Canner and his colleagues analyzed over 3.5 million emergency department visits involving patients who were admitted for attempted suicide or self-inflicted injury. Poisoning was the most common means of injury, accounting for two-thirds of all suicide attempts. Benzodiazepines, anti-anxiety medication, tranquilizers and antidepressants were the most commonly used drugs.

Codeine, morphine, methadone and other opioid medications were involved in only 4.9% of the suicide attempts.

The study confirmed that suicide attempts peak during the spring, dispelling the popular myth that suicides increase during the holiday season. Attempted suicides actually decreased in November and December.

Over 80 percent of those who were admitted for a suicide attempt suffered from a mental health disorder, a broad category that includes depression, anxiety, substance abuse and alcohol disorders.

There have been anecdotal reports of suicides increasing in the pain community since the release of the CDC’s opioid prescribing guidelines in March, 2016. But the guidelines – and their impact on suicides – did not fall within the study period. Johns Hopkins researchers also did not study the relationship between chronic pain and attempted suicide.

“The study fails to reflect, evaluate or acknowledge suicides after the crackdown on opioid analgesics to relieve chronic and intractable pain,” said Twinkle VanFleet, a chronic pain sufferer, patient advocate and suicide survivor.

“Chronic pain sufferers are at a higher risk in contemplation, ideations, and actual attempts on their lives due to the CDC guidelines being developed without consideration to the suffering… inflicting fear in providers to prescribe and fear in patients to live.”

Earlier this year, VanFleet said she became suicidal due to her own undertreated pain. She sought help from two doctors and also went to an emergency room – and was sent away all three times without treatment.

“I still don't know why I'm still here,” she said.

Why I’m Afraid to Go to My Pain Clinic

By Staci Dangerfield, Guest Columnist

I have an appointment to see my pain management clinic today and I am afraid.

I am always afraid before these appointments. I am afraid I'll once again be told that I am ineligible for pain medication. I am afraid that I'll again be pressed to do trigger point injections, despite their proven inefficiencies.

I am afraid that I'll be taken off one or more antidepressants and placed on others. Though I admit I am depressed, my depression has little to do with actual hormonal or emotional imbalances and a whole lot more to do with being in constant and relentless pain.

I am afraid that I will once again be passed on to a nurse practitioner or, as happens usually, a student nurse. I have yet to meet with a doctor.

I am worried that my attempts to convey my symptoms will be met with skepticism and just as often absolute negation. I feel like I am taunted by the school yard bully: "Lose weight, exercise, use positive thinking, rest more, sleep less, be more social” and so on and so on. My tears and sobs scoffed at, to the point I am distraught, giving credence to the antidepressant regime.

I am afraid that asking once again for narcotic and opioid pain relief, a proven and effective treatment for me, will lead to the “drug seeker” label. I am afraid that the moment the treatment room door closes, I will once again face dehumanization and my legitimate diagnosis becomes a game of Russian roulette.

STACI DANGERFIELD

STACI DANGERFIELD

How much more pain can I accept before I really do lose my mind and those antidepressants that I now do not need will become my lifeline to sanity, as I force my body to endure the radically painful sub-existence the doctors took an oath to prevent? Up, up, and up those dosages go until I am no longer capable of articulating my physical pain. Not that the pain goes away, mind you, because I am emotionally too numb to fight the pain.

I once read that pain is your body's way of telling you something is wrong. So why is my body being ignored in favor of shutting down my pain receptors and as a byproduct my entire emotional spectrum?

I am afraid of having to tell the pain center that my dentist ordered me 15 Norco pills because I have a massive abscess in my tooth. Today is my pain clinic appointment and tomorrow I will have three teeth extracted. Will I be punished for accepting the precious pain relief the dentist offered?

I didn't ask my dentist for pain relief. He saw my pain. He assessed how badly I needed relief and he ordered a minimal amount of medication to last the week of antibiotics, until the extraction could be done. I am afraid of the response from the pain clinic. Like a bad girl who knows she'll be severely punished.

More than anything, I am afraid of going back to the pain clinic with hope. Hope that this time there will be time to hear me. Hope that this time I will be treated humanely and with compassion. Hope that there will be a dialog of options that includes treatment of my physical pain. Hope that I will leave that clinic with a sense of peace, with a prescription for my pain. Hope that tomorrow I can wake up with a little less pain and a bit of anticipation for a better day. Hope that government stays out of my doctor’s office.

More than anything else, I want to not be afraid. I want to believe that hope is an option again.

Staci Dangerfield suffers from fibromyalgia, neuropathy, chronic fatigue, post-traumatic stress syndrome, severe anxiety, degenerative disc disease and chronic migraines. Staci lives in Alabama with her family.

Pain News Network invites other readers to share their stories with us.  Send them to:  editor@PainNewsNetwork.org

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.