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Study: Long-term opioid prescription use spikes during 16-year period

From 1999 to 2014, prescription opioid use increased by 60 percent, and 70 percent of those on prescription opioids used them for 90 days or longer.

By Amy Wallace
Study: Long-term opioid prescription use spikes during 16-year period
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have found that long-term prescription opioid use has increased threefold over a 16-year period. Photo by wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock

Sept. 7 (UPI) -- The opioid epidemic in the United States is responsible for an average of nearly 100 deaths per day from prescription opioids, as well as illegal forms of the drug such as heroin, many of whom are given the drugs after surgery or in long-term treatment for painful conditions.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health report in a new study that long-term opioid prescription use increased threefold between 1999 and 2014, illustrating the massive increase in use of the drugs in the last two decades.

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Doctors originally prescribed opioids for shorter-term use, which was associated with a lower risk of addiction and overdose. Long-term use of opioid prescriptions is defined as use for 90 days or longer, and has been associated with a greater risk for addiction and overdose.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines in 2016 recommending that doctors prescribe opioids for chronic pain only after other options have not worked, along with prescribing more short-term or lower dose opioids to reduce risk of addiction and overdose.

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The study, published Wednesday in Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, found that between 1999 and 2000, less than half of prescription opioid users were long-term users. However, by 2013-2014, more than 70 percent of patients were taking opioid prescriptions for 90 days or more.

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"What's especially concerning is the jump in long-term prescription opioid use, since it's linked to increased risks for all sorts of problems, including addiction and overdoses," Dr. Ramin Mojtabai, a professor in the Department of Mental Health at the Bloomberg School, said in a press release.

"The study also found that long-term use was associated with heroin use as well as the concurrent use of benzodiazepines, a class of widely prescribed drugs that affect the central nervous system."

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Researchers analyzed data from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey and found prescription opioid use increased from 4.1 percent of U.S. adults in 1999-2000 to 6.8 percent in 2013-2014, an increase of 60 percent.

The study showed that overall and long-term opioid use was more common in Medicaid and Medicare participants compared to private insurance.

The study also revealed that patients with chronic back pain or arthritis were more likely to be prescribed long-term opioid medication, despite the efficacy of the drugs for either condition being questioned in previous studies.

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"Given the urgency, it's critical that we continue to try and understand what benefits, if any, exist for prescribing opioids for both short- but especially for longer-term consumption," Mojtabai said. "There may be alternative treatments. We also need to understand what other factors contribute to the considerable risks of prescription opioid medication among different groups, especially those with other drug or alcohol use in their profiles."

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