Neurology Experts Say Risk of Painkillers Outweigh Benefits

By Victoria Kim 10/07/14

The American Academy of Neurology issued a warning about taking powerful painkillers to treat non-cancer conditions.

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The risk of taking prescription painkillers far outweigh the potential benefits, according to the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). The academy’s new position statement was published in the September issue of the academy’s medical journal, Neurology.

The AAN said the risk of taking strong painkillers, which includes death, overdose, and addiction, outweigh the benefits of treating non-cancer conditions such as headache, fibromyalgia, and chronic low back pain.

“More than 100,000 people have died from prescription opioid use since policies changed in the late 1990s to allow much more liberal long-term use,” said Gary Franklin, a research professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences in the University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle, and a fellow with the AAN.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of drug overdose deaths in the United States have tripled in the past 20 years. “There have been more deaths from prescription opioids in the most vulnerable young to middle-aged groups than from firearms and car accidents," Franklin added.

The AAN cited studies which have shown that half of patients taking opioids for at least three months are still taking opioids five years later. A review of the available research showed that while these medications could provide significant short-term pain relief, there is no substantial evidence “for maintaining this effect or improving function over long periods without serious risk of overdose, dependence, or addiction.”

The AAN recommended that doctors consult with a pain management specialist if a patient’s dosage exceeds 80 to 120 milligrams per day, especially if pain and function have not substantially improved in their patients.

The U.S. prescribes more than 259 million prescriptions for painkillers annually. As a result, Americans consume 80% of the world’s painkillers. Doctors, states, institutions, and patients need to work together to stop this “epidemic,” Franklin said.

Additional suggestions for doctors to prescribe opioids more safely and effectively included screening for current or past drug use, screening for depression, and assessing pain and function for tolerance and effectiveness. “More research and information regarding opioid effectiveness and management is needed along with changes in state and federal laws and policy to ensure patients are safer when prescribed these drugs,” Franklin said.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr