Deaths from painkillers double in a decade as Britain follows US

CREDIT: This story was first seen in The Telegraph

Deaths from addictive painkillers have almost doubled in a decade as trends in Britain follow ‘alarming’ US patterns, new research shows, The Telegraph reports.

A study led by University College London Hospital shows a sharp rise in prescribing of opoid drugs, despite repeated warnings that the drugs should not be given for long periods because of their addictive qualities.

Last month ministers ordered a  landmark review of prescription drug addiction, amid concern over the rising number of women becoming hooked on painkillers, anti-anxiety drugs and antidepressants.

They said that decisive action was needed to stop the problem reaching the scale now seen across the United States. Two-thirds of those on “dependence forming medicines” are female, and typically in their 50s and 60s, separate data shows.

The new research, published in the British Journal of General Practice, shows a sharp increase in deaths attributed to opoids, over a 10 year period. The figures, comparing trends in the decade ending 2011 show almost 900 such deaths, compared with almost 500 in 2001.

Researchers tracked prescribing of the most common opoids, used for chronic pain, as well as for cancer pain and showed a rise in prescriptions of six in eight drugs.

The scientists said separate research suggests just 12% of such medication is for cancer pain, with the remainder being used for more “contentious” purposes.

NHS figures show one in eleven adults prescribed potentially addictive drugs in the past year – with a 50% rise in prescribing levels over 15 years.

Last month, ministers said decisive action was needed to stop the problem reaching the scale now seen across the United States.

It came as figures showed a 60% rise in the amount of time patients are staying on opiate-based painkillers, which are supposed to be prescribed for short periods.

Public Health England has been ordered to carry out an independent review of the evidence, examining prescribing of benzodiazepines and similar drugs usually prescribed for insomnia, opoid pain medicines, antidepressants and pills used to treat anxiety disorders, with findings due to be published early next year.

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Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Addiction to any substance can have a potentially life-changing effect on a person’s health and wellbeing, which is why GPs will carefully consider the risks of a drug before prescribing it to a patient.

“While some prescribed medication has been shown to be addictive, many of these drugs, when used appropriately and in conjunction with established clinical guidelines, are safe to use and can, most importantly, help relieve patients from debilitating and painful symptoms.”

But she said that too often, patients who would have preferred talking therapies were remaining stuck on long-term medication because no other help was on offer.

“Most patients don’t want to be on long-term prescriptions and, where possible, GPs will always try to explore non-pharmacological treatments – but these are often hard to come by at a community level, leaving family doctors with few alternatives that are still of equal benefit to the patient,” she said.

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