Accidental Overdose Isn't The Only Major Risk From Using Painkillers, Study Finds

By May Wilkerson 06/16/16

A new study suggests that powerful prescription painkillers may contribute to a series of other fatalities. 

Accidental Overdose Isn't The Only Major Risk From Using Painkillers, Study Finds

America’s death toll from prescription painkiller overdoses has been rising quickly over the past decade. But accidental overdoses are not the only potentially fatal risk of opioid-based medications. A new study suggests that highly-addictive painkillers may also contribute to heart-related deaths and other fatalities, meaning opioids could be even more dangerous than we think, AP reports.

The study found that patients using opioid painkillers were at a 64% higher risk of dying within six months of starting treatment, compared to patients taking non-opioid pain medications. Among opioid users, unintentional overdoses accounted for about 18% of deaths, compared to 8% of patients taking non-opioid meds.

"As bad as people think the problem of opioid use is, it's probably worse," said study lead Wayne Ray, a health policy professor at Vanderbilt University's medical school. "They should be a last resort and particular care should be exercised for patients who are at cardiovascular risk." The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently gave similar advice, cautioning doctors to only prescribe opioid painkillers when absolutely necessary.

The study followed 45,000 patients in Tennessee from 1999 to 2012, who were prescribed drugs for chronic pain related to ailments including persistent backaches and arthritis. Half were prescribed long-acting opioids, including controlled-release oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl skin patches. The rest received non-opioid drugs sometimes used to treat nerve pain, including gabapentin or certain antidepressants. Among the opioid users, there were 185 deaths, compared to 87 among the other patients.

Prescription painkillers have high rates of addiction and abuse, which can lead to potentially fatal overdoses and can also lead to abuse of opioid-based street drugs like heroin. But additionally, they can slow breathing and can worsen breathing issues associated with sleep apnea. This can lead to irregular heartbeats, heart attacks or sudden death, said the researchers. The study suggests that even more people have died from causes related to painkillers than the reported number of deaths from overdoses, which exceeded 14,000 deaths in 2014.

Dr. Chad Brummett, director of pain research at the University of Michigan Health System, said the study offers yet more evidence that use of these painkillers should be limited. "We've sounded the alarm over and over again," he told AP. He called for changes in how patients expect to be treated for pain, and better education for doctors about the risks associated with these drugs. “We still have a major cultural shift ahead of us," he said.

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.