The Prescription Opioid Crisis Is Over

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

In a very real sense, the prescription opioid crisis is over. But it didn’t end and we didn’t win. Instead, it has evolved into a broader drug overdose crisis. Opioids are still a factor, but so is almost every other class of drug, whether prescribed or sourced on the street.

The main players in the crisis now are illicit fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine. The vast majority of fatal overdoses include a mixture of these drugs, with alcohol and cannabis often present, and assigning any one as the sole cause of death is becoming tricky.

Connecticut Magazine recently reported on rising fentanyl overdoses in that state. According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, fentanyl deaths in Connecticut spiked from 14 in 2012 to 760 in 2018. Fentanyl was involved in 75% of all overdoses last year, often in combination with other drugs

Meanwhile, overdoses involving the most widely prescribed opioid — oxycodone — fell to just 62 deaths, the lowest in years. Only about 6% of the overdoses in Connecticut were linked to oxycodone.

Similar trends can be seen nationwide, mostly east of the Mississippi. Opioids still play a major role in drug deaths, with the CDC reporting that about 68% of 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involving an opioid. But more than half of these deaths involved fentanyl and other synthetic opioids obtained on the black market.

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According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, overdoses involving prescription opioids or heroin have plateaued, while overdoses involving methamphetamine, cocaine and benzodiazepines have risen sharply.

In other words, deaths attributable to prescription opioids alone are in decline. Deaths attributable to fentanyl are spiking, and deaths involving most other drug class are rising rapidly. The CDC estimates that there are now more overdoses involving cocaine than prescription opioids or heroin.

Moreover, the crisis is evolving fast. At the American College of Medical Toxicology’s 2019 annual meeting, featured speaker Keith Humphreys, PhD, remarked that “Fentanyl was invented in the sixties. To get to 10,000 deaths took 50 years. To get to 20,000 took 12 months.”

In fact, provisional estimates from the CDC for 2018 suggest we have reached 30,000 fentanyl deaths. And state-level data show few signs of improvements for 2019.

Worryingly, methamphetamine use is resurgent. And cocaine is “making a deadly return.”  Illicit drugs are also being mixed together in novel ways, with “fentanyl speedballs” – a mixture of fentanyl with cocaine or meth – being one example.

Drug Strategies ‘Need to Evolve’

The over-emphasis on prescription opioids in the overdose crisis has led to an under-appreciation of these broader drug trends. Researchers are seeing a need for this to change.

“The rise in deaths involving cocaine and psychostimulants and the continuing evolution of the drug landscape indicate a need for a rapid, multifaceted, and broad approach that includes more timely and comprehensive surveillance efforts to inform tailored and effective prevention and response strategies,” CDC researchers reported last week. “Because some stimulant deaths are also increasing without opioid co-involvement, prevention and response strategies need to evolve accordingly.”   

It is now common to hear about the “biopsychosocial” model for treating chronic pain – understanding the complex interaction between human biology, psychology and social factors. This same model has a lot to offer substance use and drug policy.

Substance use and addiction involve a complex interplay of genetic and epigenetic factors combined with social and cultural determinants. Treatment must be more than just saying no or interdicting suppliers. At present, medication-assisted therapy for opioid use disorder remains hard to access. And other forms of addiction have no known pharmacological treatment.

Addressing the drug overdose crisis will require not only more and better treatment but also increased efforts at harm reduction, decriminalization of drug use, improvements in healthcare, and better public health surveillance and epidemiological monitoring. Further, the underlying social and cultural factors that make American culture so vulnerable to addiction must be addressed.

None of this is going to be easy. Current efforts are misdirected, making America feel helpless and look hapless. Novel and possibly disruptive options may prove useful, from treating addiction with psychedelics to reducing risks of drug use through safe injection sites and clean needle exchanges.

We are long past the prescription opioid phase of the crisis, and are now in what is variously being called a “stimulant phase” and a “poly-drug phase.” Recognition of the shape of the drug overdose crisis is an essential first step toward changing its grim trajectory.

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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.

Biden: ‘A Little Pain Is Not Bad’

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Former Vice-President Joe Biden, who appears close to announcing a run for president in 2020, may want to think twice about the message he’s sending to a large group of voters: chronic pain patients.

While speaking Thursday as part of a panel on the opioid crisis at the University of Pennsylvania, Biden said too many doctors “willy-nilly overprescribed” opioid pain relievers.

"A little pain is not bad," said Biden. “A lot of people can get addicted within five days.”

FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN

FORMER VICE-PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN

“We got here, I believe in part, because of the greed of the drug companies and the irresponsibility of them and, quite frankly, a lack of sufficient responsibility on the part of the medical profession,“ Biden said, adding that 215 million prescriptions for opioids were written in 2016.

“We desperately need people with chronic pain to have this access, but you cannot convince me anywhere near that is the case,” he said.

The 76-year old former senator also expressed regret about being a co-sponsor of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which created tougher sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine. Critics say the law sent a disproportionate share of African-Americans and other minorities to prison.

"The big mistake was us buying into the idea that crack cocaine was different from the powder cocaine, and having penalties ... it should be eliminated," Biden said, according to Delaware Online. “I’m sorry I didn’t know more about behavior.”

Biden’s knowledge about the opioid crisis appears dated. The vast majority of overdose deaths are now attributed to illicit fentanyl, heroin and other black market opioids, not pain medication. The number of opioid prescriptions has also been declining for several years and now stand at their lowest level since 2003.

Prescription opioids are not particularly risky if used responsibly, according to a recent study of over half a million Medicare patients who were prescribed the drugs. Over 90 percent had a negligible risk of an overdose. Even among “high risk” patients on high opioid doses, the risk of an overdose is less than two percent.  

A major review of studies on long term opioid therapy found that only 0.27% of patients were at risk of opioid addiction, abuse or other serious side effects. In another large study, The British Medical Journal reported that only 3% of opioid naïve patients (new to opioids) continued to use the drugs 90 days after a major elective surgery.

Biden’s advice to pain sufferers that “a little pain is not bad,” is reminiscent of a statement by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who told a Florida audience in 2018 that "people need to take some aspirin sometimes and tough it out.”

You can watch the opioid panel discussion on YouTube by clicking here.

An Open Letter to the CDC Center for Injury Prevention

By Richard “Red” Lawhern, Guest Columnist

Dear Dr. Robert Redfield and Dr. Debra Houry,

By its passive refusal to conduct a thorough review of the impact and outcomes of its 2016 opioid prescribing guideline, the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control is actively causing harm to hundreds of thousands of pain patients.   

Deserted by their doctors in a hostile regulatory environment, many are going into the streets seeking pain relief.  Possibly hundreds may already be dead of illegal fentanyl poisoning or suicide.  Military veterans, in particular, face draconian restrictions on the availability of safe and effective opioid medication therapy.   

And all for no good reason!

I suggest with every intention of professional and personal courtesy, that government organizations can no longer stand aside from this centrally important issue.  Such a stance will make you and other federal agencies accessories to state-sanctioned torture and negligent homicide.  That is unacceptable.   

As a former military officer, I respect a well-tried motto that I urge each of our regulators to take on as their own:   

      Lead, follow, or get out of the way! 

It has become clear that the CDC guideline must be immediately withdrawn for a major rewrite.  In its present form, the guideline is unjustifiably biased against opioid pain relievers, factually incomplete, in error on basic science, and founded on untested assumptions that do not hold up under any degree of careful scrutiny.   

The guideline is directly responsible for a vast regulatory over-reach by DEA and state authorities that is driving doctors out of pain management and denying safe and effective pain treatment for hundreds of thousands of patients.  

The CDC guideline has been publicly repudiated by no less an authority than the American Medical Association. Over 300 medical professionals have called for a rewrite of the guideline from the ground up. And a recent draft report by a federal task force calls for a reorientation of the guideline towards individualized patient-centered care, not the one-size-fits-all approach of the CDC. 

Multiple published papers have conclusively invalidated the guideline’s contention that there is a maximum dose threshold of risk for opioid addiction and overdose.   

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Likewise, contrary to assertions in the guideline, there are presently no validated long-term studies to support the use of non-opioid analgesics and NSAIDs, or the off-label prescribing of anti-seizure and anti-depressant drugs to treat pain. No Phase II or Phase III trials have been published on "alternative" techniques such as acupuncture, massage or meditation.  And there are no trials which directly compare these techniques to opioid therapy under documented protocols.  Alternative treatments can at best be regarded as adjuncts to be added to analgesic or anti-inflammatory treatment.  

Published papers also demonstrate that criteria used by CDC and other federal agencies to identify risk of opioid abuse or overdose have very limited predictive accuracy. These faulty criteria are now being used by Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMP’s) to "flag" patients presumed to be at risk, who are in fact not at risk but are being denied pain treatment due to false alarms.  

Opioids, Overdoses and Demographics 

We can now take this narrative a step further.  I have compiled overdose data directly from the CDC Wonder database and from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality Data. This data focuses specifically on deaths directly attributable to opioid-related overdoses or suicide. The chart below shows rates of mortality by age group from 1999 to 2017.

GRAPHICS BY RED LAWHERN

GRAPHICS BY RED LAWHERN

Note that the highest rates of opioid-related mortality are among youth and young adults, while the lowest rates are among people over age 55.  Moreover, mortality in youth has skyrocketed by 1,800% over 17 years, while remaining relatively stable in people 55 and older.

The chart below documents the contrast in opioid prescribing by age group in 2016.  Unsurprisingly, older adults and seniors are much more likely to experience chronic pain and are prescribed opioids at a rate nearly double that of young adults. These two demographic trends contradict the idea that opioid overdoses are linked to prescribing.  They’re not and the evidence proves it. 

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An updated analysis report further summarizes major themes we found in the overdose data.  The report reveals that “over-prescribing” of medical opioids was never a significant driver in opioid overdoses. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between rates of opioid prescribing versus rates of opioid overdose. In fact, it can be argued that in states where prescribing rates are highest, the trend may be in the opposite direction. 

The downward sloping red line in the chart below is called a "regression" line.  This is the trend line for the overdose and prescribing data from all 50 states in 2016. If there were a connection between high rates of opioid prescribing and overdoses, we’d expect the regression line to be pointing upward, not downward.

Overdose mortality rates are actually lower in high-prescribing states! 

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One plausible explanation for the downward sloping line is that in states where prescribing has been more suppressed, patients are being driven into unsafe street markets or are committing suicide when overwhelmed by pain.   

These findings have previously been published in the blog of Dr. Lynn Webster, former President of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and author of "The Painful Truth." 

The implications of this analysis are glaring: the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control has created a fatally flawed guideline which actively increases injury rather than reducing it.   

Taken in sum, the evidence reveals that key assumptions on which the CDC guideline is based are simply and conclusively wrong.  Continued refusal to reevaluate the guideline is morally, ethically, medically and legally wrong. The 2016 CDC guideline on opioids must be retracted.  NOW! 

(Editor’s note: Dr. Redfield is CDC Director and Dr. Houry is Director of the CDC National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. A longer version of this open letter has been sent by email to other federal agencies and officials.)

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Richard “Red” Lawhern, PhD, has for over 20 years volunteered as a patient advocate in online pain communities and a subject matter expert on public policy for medical opioids.  Red is co-founder and Director of Research for The Alliance for the Treatment of Intractable Pain.

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.

Illicit Fentanyl Deaths Rising at ‘Exponential Rate’

By Martha Bebinger, Kaiser Health News

Men are dying after opioid overdoses at nearly three times the rate of women in the United States. Overdose deaths are increasing faster among black and Latino Americans than among whites. And there’s an especially steep rise in the number of young adults ages 25 to 34 whose death certificates include some version of the drug fentanyl.

These findings, published in a new report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, highlight the start of the third wave of the nation’s opioid epidemic. The first was prescription pain medications, such as OxyContin; then heroin, which replaced pills when they became too expensive; and now illicit fentanyl, which is often mixed with heroin or used in the production of counterfeit pills

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that can shut down breathing in less than a minute, and its popularity in the U.S. began to surge at the end of 2013. For each of the next three years, fatal overdoses involving fentanyl doubled, “rising at an exponential rate,” said Merianne Rose Spencer, a statistician at the CDC and one of the study’s authors.

Spencer’s research shows a 113 percent average annual increase from 2013 to 2016 (when adjusted for age). That total was first reported in late 2018, but Spencer looked deeper with this report into the demographic characteristics of those people dying from fentanyl overdoses.

FENTANYL DEATHS BY QUARTER (2011 TO 2016)

FENTANYL DEATHS BY QUARTER (2011 TO 2016)

Increased trafficking of the drug and increased use are both fueling the spike in fentanyl deaths. For drug dealers, fentanyl is easier to produce than some other opioids. Unlike the poppies needed for heroin, which can be spoiled by weather or a bad harvest, fentanyl’s ingredients are easily supplied; it’s a synthetic combination of chemicals, often produced in China and packaged in Mexico, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. And because fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than heroin, smaller amounts translate to bigger profits.

Jon DeLena, assistant special agent in charge of the DEA’s New England Field Division, said 1 kilogram of fentanyl, driven across the southern U.S. border, can be mixed with fillers or other drugs to create 6 or 8 kilograms for sale.

“I mean, imagine that business model,” DeLena said. “If you went to any small-business owner and said, ‘Hey, I have a way to make your product eight times the product that you have now,’ there’s a tremendous windfall in there.”

For drug users, fentanyl is more likely to cause an overdose than heroin because it is so potent and because the high fades more quickly than with heroin. Drug users say they inject more frequently with fentanyl because the high doesn’t last as long — and more frequent injecting adds to the risk of overdose.

There are several ways fentanyl can wind up in a dose of some other drug. The mixing may be intentional, as a person seeks a more intense or different kind of high. It may happen as an accidental contamination, as dealers package their fentanyl and other drugs in the same place.

Or dealers may be adding fentanyl to cocaine, meth and counterfeit medication on purpose, in an effort to expand their clientele of users hooked on fentanyl.

“That’s something we have to consider,” said David Kelley, referring to the intentional addition of fentanyl to cocaine, heroin or other drugs by dealers. Kelley is deputy director of the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area. “The fact that we’ve had instances where it’s been present with different drugs leads one to believe that could be a possibility.”

The picture gets more complicated, said Kelley, as dealers develop new forms of fentanyl that are even more deadly. The new CDC report shows dozens of varieties of the drug now on the streets.

The highest rates of fentanyl-involved overdose deaths were found in New England, according to the study, followed by states in the Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest. But fentanyl deaths had barely increased in the West — including in Hawaii and Alaska — as of the end of 2016.

Researchers have no firm explanations for these geographic differences, but some experts watching the trends have theories. One is that it’s easier to mix a few white fentanyl crystals into the powdered form of heroin that is more common in Eastern states than into the black-tar heroin that is sold more routinely in the West. Another hypothesis holds that drug cartels used New England as a test market for fentanyl because the region has a strong, long-standing market for opioids.

Spencer, the study’s main author, hopes that some of the other characteristics of the wave of fentanyl highlighted in this report will help shape the public response. Why, for example, did the influx of fentanyl increase the overdose death rate among men to nearly three times the rate of overdose deaths among women?

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Some research points to one factor: Men are more likely to use drugs alone. In the era of fentanyl, that increases a man’s chances of an overdose and death, said Ricky Bluthenthal, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

“You have stigma around your drug use, so you hide it,” Bluthenthal said. “You use by yourself in an unsupervised setting. [If] there’s fentanyl in it, then you die.”

Traci Green, deputy director of Boston Medical Center’s Injury Prevention Center, offers some other reasons. Women are more likely to buy and use drugs with a partner, Green said. And women are more likely to call for help — including 911 — and to seek help, including treatment.

“Women go to the doctor more,” she said. “We have health issues that take us to the doctor more. So we have more opportunities to help.”

Green noted that every interaction with a health care provider is a chance to bring someone into treatment. So this finding should encourage more outreach, she said, and encourage health care providers to find more ways to connect with active drug users.

As to why fentanyl seems to be hitting blacks and Latinos disproportionately as compared with whites, Green points to the higher incarceration rates for blacks and Latinos. Those who formerly used opioids heavily face a particularly high risk of overdose when they leave jail or prison and inject fentanyl, she noted; they’ve lost their tolerance to high levels of the drugs.

There are also reports that African-Americans and Latinos are less likely to call 911 because they don’t trust first responders, and medication-based treatment may not be as available to racial minorities. Many Latinos said bilingual treatment programs are hard to find.

CDC researcher Spencer said the deaths attributed to fentanyl in her study should be seen as a minimum number — there are likely more that weren’t counted. Coroners in some states don’t test for the drug or don’t have equipment that can detect one of the dozens of new variations of fentanyl that would appear if sophisticated tests were more widely available.

There are signs the fentanyl surge continues. Kelley, with the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, notes that fentanyl seizures are rising. And in Massachusetts, one of the hardest-hit areas, state data show fentanyl present in more than 89 percent of fatal overdoses through October 2018.

Still, in one glimmer of hope, even as the number of overdoses in Massachusetts continues to rise, associated deaths dropped 4 percent last year. Many public health specialists attribute the decrease in deaths to the spreading availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.

This story is part of a partnership that includes WBUR, NPR and Kaiser Health News.

Kaiser Health News is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

How Has CDC Opioid Guideline Affected You?

By Lynn Webster, MD, PNN Colomunist

The controversial CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain was released on March 15, 2016 in an effort to curb the opioid crisis. While “largely supportive” of the guideline at the time, the American Medical Association had concerns about how it would be implemented.

“We remain concerned about the evidence base informing some of the recommendations; conflicts with existing state laws and product labeling; and possible unintended consequences associated with implementation, which includes access and insurance coverage limitations for non-pharmacologic treatments, especially comprehensive care; and the potential effects of strict dosage and duration limits on patient care,” said Patrice Harris, MD, then board chair-elect of the AMA.

Dr. Harris proved to be prescient. In the last three years, insurance companies, healthcare systems and dozens of states have imposed limits – based on the CDC guideline -- on the quantity and dose of opioids dispensed to people with pain.

Oregon has even drafted a plan to stop opioid prescribing for many Medicaid patients and require that they use alternative treatments. Here was my response to Oregon's plan, in which I warned that “forcing opioid tapers is not an appropriate or compassionate solution” and could drive some patients to suicide.

Pharmacies are also imposing limits. In 2017, CVS announced it would limit the number of pills for new patients with acute pain to 7 days’ supply, saying “the CDC Guideline should become the default approach to prescribing opiates.”

That same year, the giant prescription benefits manager Express Scripts also started limiting new opioid prescriptions and set a dosage limit “based on CDC prescribing guidelines.” 

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This January, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made it more difficult for over a million Medicare patients to receive doses above 90 MME (morphine milligram equivalent) which they consider a high dose. CMS also imposed a seven-day limit on all patients receiving a new opioid prescription. The CMS rules are based on evidence “cited in the CDC Guideline.”  

‘Revisit This Guideline’

When it first published its recommendations, CDC pledged to “revisit this guideline as new evidence becomes available” and said it was “committed to evaluating the guideline to identify the impact of the recommendations on clinician and patient outcomes, both intended and unintended, and revising the recommendations in future updates when warranted.” 

In a recent statement to PNN, the CDC said there are “several studies underway with external researchers” evaluating the impact of its guideline on opioid prescribing and patient outcomes. The agency also said it recently commissioned a review by Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality (AHRQ) “to determine what new scientific evidence has been released” on the effectiveness of opioid and non-opioid pain relievers.

In the meantime, no revision of the guideline is being planned.    

The CDC guideline was well-intentioned and included many wise principles of opioid prescribing. But it appears to be more about limiting the supply of opioids than improving clinical care for pain patients. Limiting opioid access may be good for some patients, but for many it means more pain and a worsened quality of life.  

There is little evidence that limiting supply reduces opioid addiction and overdoses. Opioid prescribing in the United States has significantly declined since 2012, yet opioid overdoses continue rising – primarily due to illicit fentanyl, heroin and counterfeit drugs, not prescription opioids. The CDC's reevaluation of the guideline should take this into consideration.  

In 2018, the National Institutes of Health’s Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee recommended that the CDC "engage with advocates and patients, who have been negatively impacted by the unintended consequences of the CDC guideline." It also called on the FDA and the CDC to work together to "update and improve" the guideline.  

Rather than seeing the CDC guideline as a resource or helpful tool, many prescribers live in fear of it. The DEA now routinely monitors prescription drug databases, looking for “red flags” that indicate a doctor is prescribing opioids at doses above those recommended by the CDC. The AMA last year took a stand against this “inappropriate use” of the guideline, and passed a resolution stating that doctors should not be subject to criminal prosecution or other penalties solely for prescribing opioids at higher dosages.

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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 a former president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the author of “The Painful Truth.”

You can find Lynn 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.

Fentanyl and Heroin Linked to 70% of Overdoses

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released another report today documenting the changing nature of the overdose crisis and the decreased role that prescription opioids have in drug deaths.  About 70% of fatal overdoses in 2016 involved either illicit fentanyl or heroin.

CDC researchers used “literal text analysis” to study death certificates from 2011 to 2016, looking for drugs listed as the cause of death, significant conditions contributing to that death, and a description of how the death occurred.  Alcohol, nicotine and other non-drug substances were not included in the analysis.

Researchers found that the opioid painkiller oxycodone was the most frequently mentioned drug involved in 2011 overdoses, but by 2016 oxycodone had fallen to 6th place, behind fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and the anti-anxiety drug alprazolam (Xanax).

TOP 10 DRUGS MENTIONED IN 2016 OVERDOSE DEATHS

Source: CDC

CDC researchers noted that many overdose deaths involve multiple drugs.

“We’ve had a tendency to think of these drugs in isolation. It’s not really what’s happening,”  lead author Holly Hedegaard, PhD, told the Huffington Post.

For example, fentanyl and cocaine were mentioned in nearly 4,600 deaths, while oxycodone and alprazolam were mentioned in more than 1,500 deaths. 

The CDC has already released a preliminary estimate on overdoses for 2017 using a different form of analysis. But the results are largely the same. Over 70,200 people died of a drug overdose in 2017 – the highest number on record. Deaths involving fentanyl and other synthetic, mostly black market opioids surged 45 percent, while deaths involving natural or semisynthetic opioids, mostly painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, remained flat.      

The number of opioid prescriptions in the United States has been falling since 2011, but opioid medication remains a favorite target for regulators. The DEA has proposed another round of cuts in the supply of opioid pain medication – a 10% reduction in manufacturing quotas in 2019 for oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine and three other opioids. Some of the medications are already in short supply, forcing hospitals to use other pain relievers to treat surgery and trauma patients.

The Trump Administration says opioid pain relievers are “frequently misused” and that reducing their supply will help prevent addiction, abuse and overdoses. There is little or no evidence that is true.

The Overdose Crisis Is Not Just About Rx Opioids

By Roger Chriss, PNN Columnist

The CDC last week released its latest report on drug overdoses in 2017.  The death toll was the highest recorded, with over 70,000 Americans dying from drug poisoning. Deaths involving illicit fentanyl and other black market synthetic opioids surged 45 percent, while deaths involving opioid pain medication remained unchanged.

Although the death toll for 2018 may be a bit lower, it is premature to declare as the Washington Post did that “the opioid epidemic may be receding.”

Instead, the crisis is evolving.

“Fentanyl deaths are up, a 45 percent increase; that is not a success,” Dan Ciccarone, PhD, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times. “We have a heroin and synthetic opioid epidemic that is out of control and needs to be addressed.”

The available data for 2018 supports this. There have been over 1,500 overdoses in Massachusetts so far this year and the details of those deaths are sobering. Fentanyl was present in 90 percent of toxicology reports during the second quarter of 2018, a three-fold increase since 2014. Prescription drugs of any form were found in only 17 percent of reports.

Public health data from Connecticut is similar. Illicit opioids were found in nearly 80 percent of the 867 people who died of an unintentional opioid overdose in 2016.

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Current data is also showing that drugs like methamphetamine are having a significant impact on overdose rates. Kaiser Health News reports that amphetamine related hospitalizations – mostly involving meth – are surging and that more than 10,000 people died of meth-related drug overdoses last year.

The opioid overdose crisis is no longer primarily about prescription opioids used medically, or even exclusively about opioids. And studies of long-term opioid therapy are not showing increasing rates of overdose.

Medscape reported on a recent study that found cancer patients had a much lower risk of dying from an opioid overdose than the general population. The study looked at opioid deaths from 2006 through 2016, a period that saw rapidly rising overdose rates. Opioid death rates jumped from 5.33 to 8.97 per 100,000 people in the general population during that period, but among cancer patients, opioid deaths rose from 0.52 to 0.66 per 100,000.

Another recent study found that the use of opioids in treating pain from sickle cell disease was “safe” and rarely results in overdoses  

“What our study uniquely shows is that, using this large nationwide database, that deaths in a hospital setting related to opioid toxicity or overdose almost never happen among those with sickle cell disease," Oladimeji Akinola Akinboro, MBBS, of Boston University School of Medicine told Medpage. "This suggests that current patterns of opioid use in this population is safe, assuming we continue the same risk-mitigation strategies."

In other words, long-term pain management in disorders like cancer and sickle cell disease is not associated with increased rates of fatal overdose. Both of these studies have important limitations, in particular the possibility that some overdose deaths went uncounted. But the low rates of overdose in these groups suggests that with careful patient screening and monitoring, opioids can be used safely.

More can and should be done. Opioids are being prescribed more cautiously to children and teens. This is important, in light of a new JAMA study on wisdom tooth extraction, which found that over 5% of young people who had their wisdom teeth removed and received opioids for pain control went on to receive an opioid abuse-related diagnosis.

The overdose crisis is fast evolving into a poly-drug substance use problem. Addiction expert Michael Botticelli, the former director of National Drug Control Policy, told WBUR that a better understanding is needed of why people use drugs, not just which drugs they use.

"The data are pretty clear that we have a drug use epidemic and a drug overdose epidemic,” he said. “I think we have to really be careful that our strategies speak to all of those issues.”

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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.

Rising Overdoses Show CDC Guideline Not Working

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

Rising suicides and drug overdose deaths led to another decline in U.S. left expectancy last year, according to two sobering reports released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Americans born in 2017 are expected to live 78.6 years, about one month less than those born in 2016. Life expectancy has fallen or remained flat in the U.S. for three consecutive years. The UK is the only other country in the industrialized world where life expectancy is dropping.

“Tragically, this troubling trend is largely driven by deaths from drug overdose and suicide. Life expectancy gives us a snapshot of the Nation’s overall health and these sobering statistics are a wakeup call that we are losing too many Americans, too early and too often, to conditions that are preventable,” CDC director Robert Redfield, MD, said in a statement.

Redfield, who almost lost a son to a drug overdose, has been nearly invisible since becoming CDC director in March. He has previously called the opioid epidemic “the public health crisis of our time” and pledged to “bring this epidemic to its knees.”

So far, the CDC’s strategies, including its controversial 2016 opioid prescribing guideline, are not working. As PNN has reported, the guideline may even be contributing to the rising number of suicides and overdoses.

Over 70,200 people died of a drug overdose in 2017 – the highest number on record and nearly a 10 percent increase from 2016. Deaths involving illicit fentanyl and other synthetic, mostly black market opioids surged 45 percent, while deaths involving natural or semisynthetic opioids, mostly painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, remained flat.  The rate of heroin deaths also remained unchanged.

SOURCE: CDC

SOURCE: CDC

CDC researchers noted that their data is flawed. Drug overdose deaths often involve multiple drugs, and “a single death might be included in more than one drug category.” A death “involving” a specific drug also doesn’t mean that drug was the cause of death. It only means the drug was present at the time of death.  The competency of medical examiners and coroners who complete death certificates can also vary widely from state to state.

The CDC reported that over 47,000 people committed suicide last year, nearly 4 percent more than in 2016. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death among all age groups – and the 2nd leading cause of death among adolescents and young adults aged 10 to 34.

Reports Ignored Role of Antidepressants, ADHD Drugs

The CDC reports did not explore the role of drugs used to treat depression, anxiety and attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) in either suicides or overdoses.

According to a recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Xanax, Valium, Adderall and other psychotherapeutic drugs were involved in more overdoses in 2016 than prescription opioids.

A report this week from the Research Abuse Diversion and Addiction Related Surveillance System (RADARS), which tracks illicit drug use nationwide, underscores that emerging trend. RADARS found that the abuse of ADHD stimulants now exceeds the abuse of prescription opioids by Americans aged 19 or younger. The rising trend in “intentional exposures” to stimulants – which includes suicide – began in 2010 and is accelerating.    

PEDIATRIC CASES OF UNINTENTIONAL EXPOSURE (SOURCE: RADARS)

PEDIATRIC CASES OF UNINTENTIONAL EXPOSURE (SOURCE: RADARS)

“There have been more pediatric exposures involving stimulants than pediatric exposures involving natural/semi-synthetic opioid analgesics in every quarter since 4th quarter 2014. The increase appears to be driven by exposures where the intent of the patient was suicide,” the RADARS report found. 

“Multiple factors may contribute to the observed increase in suspected suicide exposures. The increase may reflect overall increases in suicides in the United States. It may also be a result of increases in stimulant misuse.” 

In the 2nd quarter of 2018, there were 822 reported cases of intentional exposure to stimulants among young people, while there were 503 cases involving opioid analgesics.

Ignoring the Evidence in Canada

By Marvin Ross, Guest Columnist

For those of us north of the border who are defending against the assault on pain patients, it was very gratifying to see the American Medical Association come out against the “inappropriate use” of the CDC guideline on opioid prescribing.

Sadly, we cannot hope that the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) will do the same. The CMA embraced the Canadian guideline – which is modeled after the CDC’s -- and argued for better evidence on the safety and efficacy of prescription opioids.

Sadly, how Canadian officials evaluate evidence is suspect. Jason Busse, the chiropractor who chaired the Canadian guideline, contends that no randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been done on opioids that follow patients for longer than six months. He tweeted that to me after I challenged him on the results of an analysis that concluded that “to dismiss trials as ‘inadequate’ if their observation period is a year or less is inconsistent with current regulatory standards.”

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I pointed out that multiple published studies and over 1.6 million patients maintained on doses over 200mg MME (morphine milligram equivalent) disprove his claim opioids don’t work long term.

Busse’s reply was, “Yes - the CDC guideline excluded all trials of less than 1 year duration. The Canadian guideline did not. Nonetheless, there are no RCTs of opioids that follow pts. For more than 6 months.”

He did not reply to my comment that Prozac was approved for use based on trails of only 12 weeks duration and that many patients take anti-depressants for years. It has always seemed strange to me that McMaster University, which led the development of the Canadian guideline, is the home to evidence based medicine. One of the co-ordinators of the guideline is Dr. Gordon Guyatt, who is credited as the one who brought evidence based studies to the world.

The most flagrant avoidance of evidence is by Health Canada, which continues to insist that high rates of opioid prescribing is one of the main causes of the opioid crisis. Ann Marie Gaudon, a columnist for PNN, has been attempting to find out what evidence Health Canada has to make that claim.

Not only have they not responded to her query, but her call to their office at the end of October resulted in one of the most bizarre phone calls ever heard. Syndicated radio show host Roy Green devoted two episodes to what can only be described as a “Who's on First” discussion with a government official.

Health Canada now mandates that every prescription issued for an opioid carry a sticker and a leaflet warning of addiction risks. A total wasted effort. The evidence that prescriptions opioids are a significant part of the problem is lacking.

The Ontario Drug Policy Research Network just released a database that disproves claims that prescriptions are a major cause of opioid overdoses. It shows that opioid prescriptions in Ontario have been declining for years, as they have in the United States.  About two-thirds of the opioid prescriptions written in 2015 were for patients over the age of 45 and less than 2 percent were for fentanyl.

Contrast those stats to information put out by this same agency on opioid deaths. Accidental overdoses among those 15 to 44 accounted for nearly 60% of opioid deaths. And the most common opioid involved in overdoses was fentanyl – most of it illicit and obtained on the black market.

It would be very refreshing if governments and regulators in Canada actually looked at their own data before cracking down on prescriptions for legitimate pain sufferers. That may be too much to expect, but one can always hope.

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Marvin Ross is a medical writer and publisher in Dundas, Ontario. He has been writing on chronic pain for the past year and is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post.

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.

Overdoses Soar in 2 States Despite Fewer Rx Opioids

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

New studies from two of the states hardest hit by the opioid crisis – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania -- are throwing a damper on recent speculation that drug overdoses may have peaked.  

Researchers at Boston Medical Center released a startling study that found nearly 5 percent of people over the age of 11 in Massachusetts have an opioid use disorder.

The Drug Enforcement Administration also admitted in a Joint Intelligence Report that reducing the supply of prescription opioids in Pennsylvania failed to reduce the state’s soaring overdose rate and may have even increased demand for counterfeit painkillers. Pennsylvania had 5,456 fatal overdoses in 2017, a 65% increase from 2015.  

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“Implementation of legislation influencing prescription opioid prescribing has resulted in a decrease in availability; however, a corresponding decrease in demand is less certain,” the DEA report found.

“Practitioners may be offering non-opioid alternatives to pain management to their patients, but this is most likely due to increased scrutiny of prescribing habits, as well as legislated changes, not due to requests from patients seeking non-opioid products.”

Prescription opioids were involved in only 20% of Pennsylvania’s overdoses. Most of the deaths involve a combination of illicit drugs such fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and counterfeit medication.

“The increasing presence of counterfeit opioid CPDs (controlled prescription drugs) in Pennsylvania is an indicator of strong demand for opioid CPDs in the illicit market. Traffickers use substances such as heroin, fentanyl, and tramadol to create tablets that look like the opioid CPDs most commonly purchased on the street (e.g., oxycodone 30 milligram tablets). The tablets are often exact replicas with the shape, coloring, and markings consistent with authentic prescription medications,” the report found.

The DEA said heroin and fentanyl could be found in 97% of Pennsylvania’s counties and called the city of Philadelphia a “wholesale market” for illicit drugs from China and Mexico.

Opioid Use Disorder in Massachusetts

Illicit fentanyl is also blamed for a soaring number of fatal overdoses in Massachusetts, where researchers used a new method to estimate how many people have opioid use disorder (OUD).  

Instead of relying on insurance claims for addiction treatment, researchers used a database that links information from 16 state agencies on other forms of healthcare use. Researchers were then able to identify patients who have OUD and estimate those who have the disorder but aren't seeking treatment. Individuals with substance use disorders are often less likely to seek medical care or be insured. Many are also reluctant to admit they have a drug problem.  

"There are many people with opioid use disorder who do not encounter the health care system, which we know is a barrier to understanding the true impact of the opioid epidemic," said Joshua Barocas, MD, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, who was lead author of the study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

Barocas and his colleagues found the prevalence of opioid use disorder in Massachusetts rose from 2.72% in 2011 to 4.6% in 2015. People between the ages of 11 and 25 experienced the greatest increase in OUD – a demographic much younger than a typical chronic pain sufferer, who is usually middle aged.

In 2012, Massachusetts was one of the first states where insurers and healthcare providers took steps to reduce the supply of prescription opioids – measures that have yet to have any meaningful impact on the state’s overdose rate.  

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

MASSACHUSETTS DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC HEALTH

Massachusetts was also one of the first states to use toxicology screens from coroners and medical examiners to get a more accurate assessment of the drugs involved in overdoses.

According to the most recent report from the first quarter of 2018, nearly 90% of Massachusetts overdoses involve fentanyl, 43% percent involve cocaine, 42% involve benzodiazepines and 34% involve heroin. Prescription opioids were involved in only about 20% of the Massachusetts overdoses, the same rate as Pennsylvania.

Preliminary estimates released by the CDC last week show a modest 2.3% nationwide decline in opioid overdoses from September 2017 to March 2018. Over 48,000 people died from opioid overdoses during that period, with most of those deaths involving illicit fentanyl, heroin and other street drugs.