'Largest Study Of Opioid Deaths' Reveals Who's At Risk

By Paul Fuhr 12/01/17

Two-thirds of the individuals studied were diagnosed with chronic pain and had been prescribed an opioid in the year before their death. 

 a group of people running away from a falling bridge of pills

An eye-opening study of America’s opioid crisis found that the majority of opioid overdose deaths began with a legitimate prescription. According to Bloomberg, the “largest study of opioid deaths” revealed that over half of everyone who overdosed between 2001 and 2007 were being treated for chronic pain.

Published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, the wide-ranging study examined “the medical records of 13,089 adults, all under the age of 65, in Medicaid programs in 45 states, who died of an opioid overdose” over a six-year span. Even more staggering is the fact that “only 4% [of overdose victims] were ever diagnosed as having an abuse problem.”

The study’s findings offer proof that the opioid epidemic is deeply rooted in the medical community. Conducted by researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), the study is the first to successfully put numbers to how many overdose deaths began with prescriptions. The findings divided victims of the opioid crisis into two separate groups: people who were diagnosed with chronic pain and people who weren’t.

Two-thirds of the individuals studied (61%) were diagnosed with chronic pain and had been prescribed an opioid in the year before their death. 

Additionally, those same people were prescribed benzodiazepines (otherwise known as anti-anxiety drugs) which, as Bloomberg observed, “can make for a deadly combination.” One of the researchers’ key suggestions is to stop (or strictly limit) prescribing opioids and benzodiazepines at the same time.

The study’s lead researcher, Dr. Mark Olfson, said that understanding the differences between the two populations of drug overdose victims “puts us in a better position to combat the epidemic.” 

Over 33,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2015 alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said. Worse yet: that number has quadrupled since 1999. The CDC also noted that the amount of prescription painkillers sold to pharmacies, doctors’ offices and hospitals also quadrupled between 1999 and 2010, despite no significant increase in the amount of pain reported by Americans.

The new study’s researchers, however, hope their work will help reverse these trends. “The frequent occurrence of treated chronic pain and mental health conditions among overdose decedents underscores the importance of offering substance use treatment services in clinics that treat patients with chronic pain and mental health problems,” Dr. Olfson said in the study’s press release. “Such a strategy might increase early clinical intervention in patients who are at high risk for fatal opioid overdose.

What the new survey lays bare is the fact that opioid prescriptions remain far too easy to get. And while the number of painkiller prescriptions has decreased over the years, they are still prescribed three times as much as they were in 1999, Bloomberg noted. 

One of the few ways to successfully turn the tide on the epidemic, researchers claim, is to improve the drug treatment methods for patients suffering from substance abuse problems. Still, the people most at risk of overdosing are the patients without a diagnosed drug problem. It’s the people with chronic pain who sit in the epidemic’s crosshairs. In fact, the study revealed that both millennials and baby boomers are equally at risk.

While baby boomers demonstrate a significantly high rate of illicit drug use, millennials are particularly susceptible to heroin overdoses, thanks to the drug’s availability. The study’s authors acknowledged that there wasn’t yet enough data available on people born after 1993 to determine where they fall in relation with earlier generations. 

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Paul Fuhr lives in Columbus, Ohio with his family and two cats, Vesper and Dr. No. He's written for AfterParty MagazineThe Literary Review and The Live Oak Review, among others. He's also the host of "Drop the Needle," a podcast about music and addiction recovery. More at paulfuhr.com. You can also find Paul on Linkedin and Twitter.