New Study Estimates Opioid Misuse and Addiction in Chronic Pain Patients

As the use of long-term opioid therapy to treat chronic pain continues to be a hotly debated topic, a new study in PAIN analyzed the extent to which patients misuse their medications and the risk of addiction associated with these behaviors.

As the use of long-term opioid therapy to treat chronic pain continues to be a hotly debated topic, a new study in PAIN analyzed the extent to which patients misuse their medications and the risk of addiction associated with these behaviors.

Kevin Vowles, PhD, associate professor at the University of Mexico, and colleagues examined data from 38 studies, making up a total of 320 records, in order to find the rate of problems surrounding opioid use. The team found that although opioids can be beneficial and provide relief, there are often unintended consequences that can result from their use as well.

“Identification of individuals currently using opioids in a problematic way is important given the substantial recent increases in prescription rates and consequent increases in morbidity and mortality,” the study reads.

Not only does prescribing opioids open the door for misuse, but addiction is also possible. As they analyzed data from the studies the researchers identified several different kinds of misuse including underuse, overuse, erratic or disorganized use, using with alcohol or illegal substances, and inappropriate use, such as to relieve anxiety.

“On average, misuse was documented in approximately 1 of 4 or 5 patients (actual mean percentage range: 21.7%-29.3%) and addiction in approximately 1 of 10 or 11 patients (actual mean percentage range: 7.8%-11.7%),” the authors wrote.

Although those figures represent the average across all of the records, the investigators point out that individually the studies range in opioid addiction from 0.7% to 34.1%. When it comes to the high-quality studies, there’s a range in misuse rates from 2% to 56.3%.

The research notes 35 out of the 38 studies reported on the rates of either the misuse or addiction of opioids and the other 3 weighed in on both. Also, 35 out of the 38 studies took place in the United States.

“We are not certain whether the benefits derived from opioids, which are rather unclear based on the extant literature, compensate for this additional burden to patients and health care systems,” the team concluded.