By Pat Anson, PNN Editor
It’s long been a popular belief that prescription opioids fueled the nation’s opioid crisis and play a major role in overdose deaths. The CDC’s 2016 opioid guideline says as much.
“Sales of opioid pain medication have increased in parallel with overdose deaths,” the guideline states. “Having a history of an opioid prescription is one of many factors that increase risk for overdose.”
But a new study by researchers in Massachusetts has turned that theory on its head. Prescription opioids are usually not involved in overdoses. And even when they are, the overdose victim rarely has an active prescription for them – meaning the medications were diverted, stolen or bought on the street.
“Commonly the medication that people are prescribed is not the one that’s present when they die. And vice versa. The people who died with a prescription opioid like oxycodone in their toxicology screen often don’t have a prescription for it,” says lead author Alexander Walley, MD, a researcher at Boston Medical Center and Associate Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine.
Walley and his colleagues analyzed nearly 3,000 opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts from 2013 to 2015, a period when heroin overdoses were surging and the first wave of illicit fentanyl was entering the black market.
Toxicology screens showed that multiple drugs were involved in most of the overdoses, with heroin detected in 61% of the deaths and fentanyl in 45% of them.
Prescription opioids alone were detected in only 16.5% of the overdoses.
The researchers didn’t stop there. They wanted to know if the people who died had prescriptions for the opioid medications that killed them. To their surprise, only 1.3% of them did.
“We were able to link individuals who died of an overdose to their prescription monitoring program records. So we could see how many people who died of an opioid overdose had been prescribed a medication at the time of their death. It turns out that was a minority of the patients,” Walley told PNN.
“If it were only the opioids we prescribed that were killing people, then we would have a perfect match between what we prescribed and what people were dying from. But that only happens 1.3% of the time.”
Rx Opioid Myths Exposed
Walley’s study, published in the journal of Public Health Reports, is one of the first to compare overdose toxicology reports with data collected in Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs). The findings strongly suggest that patients with legitimate prescriptions rarely overdose. And they provide a more nuanced and detailed view of what we usually hear about opioid-related overdoses.
For example, only 6% of those who died with oxycodone in their system had an active prescription for it, meaning the other 94% were taking oxycodone that was diverted or perhaps leftover from an old prescription. Active prescriptions for tramadol, morphine, hydrocodone and hydromorphone were found in less than 1% of the people who died with the drugs in their system.
Interestingly, active prescriptions for two opioids used to treat addiction --- methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone) – were found in about 3% of overdoses linked to the drugs.
Massachusetts pain patient David Wieland says the study findings confirm what he has long believed about the opioid crisis.
“The results of this study show that PROP (Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing) and the anti-opioid zealots have been misleading the public for years, as it completely blows the myths they have been spinning out of the water,” Wieland said. “For years they have constantly blamed the majority of these overdose deaths on prescription pain medication. Even as prescribing numbers decreased and overdoses only skyrocketed, they still pushed forward with their lies and propaganda.”
Wieland says his own doctor bought into the myths, insisting that 75% of all overdose victims were pain patients who died by taking their opioid medication as prescribed.
“This was his excuse to further take me completely off my medication,” said Wieland. “Think I'm going to have to send this study to him along with a note reminding him about the supposed facts he tried to shove down my throat.”
Dr. Walley says regulators and public health officials should also take note, and that public education campaigns should not solely focus on the risks of prescription opioids. The CDC’s Rx Awareness campaign, for example, warns people about the abuse of prescription opioids, but says nothing at all about illicit opioids.
“Policy makers may too narrowly focus efforts on preventing the misuse of prescription opioids and devote inadequate resources to addressing heroin and illicit fentanyl use,” Walley said. “I think we can see that we don’t just have a prescription opioid problem. We have an illicit opioid problem. And I think our policy should reflect that.”