A recent user question on VYou (see my response here) addressed the issue of prescribing addicts with opioid pain medication. Since prescription medication abuse and addiction is on the rise and getting more and more attention in the media every year, the question of whether addicts in recovery, or people who have dealt with substance abuse and addiction problems in the past, should be prescribed these medications is a very relevant one.
Chronic pain affects a substantial portion of the population worldwide (as many as 30%, see here). Opiate medications are one of the most commonly used approaches to treating such pain, which if untreated can cause serious disruptions to sufferers’ lives. Even when treated, chronic pain can be pretty debilitating. Some research (1) brings up good questions about the true effectiveness of opiate therapy for chronic pain, especially among long-term opiate users (like heroin and prescription pain medication addicts) but also among other drug using populations.
So how common is the practice? What sort of results do drug addicts usually get from these opiate therapies? And finally, how many of the addicts or drug abusers who receive these therapies end up abusing them and can we identify those people early so we can stop prescribing to them? In this three-part series of articles we’re going to cover these questions in-depth.
Prescription pain medication use in addict populations
Clinicians treating chronic back pain choose from a range of options, including opioid medications, exercise therapy, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, tricyclic antidepressants, acupuncture, and electrical stimulation. One study (1) found wide variability in the percent of chronic pain patients prescribed opioids (from 3%-66%) although the studies varied widely in their size and population served – some even looks at general back pain and not chronic pain alone (they tended to have much lower opioid prescription percentages). Among chronic pain clinic patients, chronic opioid pain medication use was estimated at 19% (2).
Among addicted populations, concerns about tolerance, withdrawal, and abuse tend to cut prescription rates for opioid pain medications. However, past drug abuse can exacerbate pain issues, especially for people who abuse, or have abused, opiates in the past. For this reason, it can sometimes be difficult to properly manage pain in people with a history of addiction. One study (3) found that as many as 67% of patients in a Methadone Maintenance Program and 52% of patients in short term residential treatment programs were being prescribed opiates for pain. It’s important to note that these numbers are higher than those reported in other studies but that populations in treatment do generally show prescription rates higher than the general population. A study in Finland (a country that has great medical record data) found that opiate prescription rates in substance abuse populations were equivalent (not higher or lower) to those in the general population. The College of Problems on Drug Dependence itself had released an official statement noting that a balance must be reached between fear of opioid prescriptions for pain and the usefulness of opioid pain medication for chronic and severe pain (4).
Interestingly, it seems that of all opioid pain medication prescriptions, the largest increases in troubling use has been around oxycodone (Oxycontin), which gets mentioned as often in emergency departments (ED) around the country even though it is prescribed about one-third as often as hydrocodone (Vicodin). This is less surprising when you consider the fact that many addicts report using oxycontin in different ways including smoking, snorting, and injecting the stuff, which is stronger and does not have the same amount of fillers as most hydrocodone preparations. The fact that oxycodone is stronger also means it is more effective for pain relief through higher activation of the opioid system that is relevant for addiction.
In our next piece we are going to explore whether opiate pain medication is helpful in controlling pain among addicts and substance abusers, see you then!
1. Martell, O’Connor, Kerns, Becker, Morales, Kosten, Fiellin. (2007). Systematic Review: Opioid Treatment for Chronic Back Pain: Prevalence, Efficacy, and Association with Addiction. Annals of Internal Medicine, 146, 116-127.
2. Chabal, Erjavec, Jacobson, Mariano, Chaney (1997). Prescription Opiate Abuse in Chronic Pain Patients: Clinical Criteria, Incidence, and Predictors. Clinical Journal of Pain, 13, 150-155.
3. Rosenblum, Joseph, Fong, Kipnis, Cleland, and Portenoy (2003). Prevalence and characteristics of chronic pain among chemically dependent patients in methadone maintenance and residential treatment facilities. The Journal of the American Medical Association, 289, 2370-2378.
4. College on Problems of Drug Dependence taskforce on prescription opioid non-medical use and abuse: position statement.