Opioid painkillers overdoses double in decade

The number of hospital admissions for patients overdosing on opioid painkillers has more than doubled in a decade, data shows.

Doctors have said the increase to 11,660 hospital admissions is the ‘very worrying’ consequence of the drugs being prescribed too readily.

Data from NHS Digital has revealed an increase in people attending hospital with poisoning from prescription opioids rising from 4,891 in 2005/06 to 11,660 in 2016.

A 10-year data timeline shows numbers of patients admitted for opioid poisoning have risen consistently from 2005.

The Faculty of Pain Medicine (FPM) at the Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) said they were worried about the growing use of opioid drugs such as codeine and tramadol.

Doctors have warned about prescriptions for painkillers being given too readily, with recent estimates suggesting over 192,000 people in the UK could be dependent on such drugs as a result.

Jane Quinlan, a consultant in anaesthesia and pain management at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said: “These figures confirm fears that the increase in opioid prescribing and availability has broader consequences.

“I have also seen patients taking more opioids than they should because they were desperate to treat their pain, even though we know they are unlikely to be effective; some who have taken them as a deliberate suicide attempt – sometimes because of the pain – and some who have become acutely hypersensitive to their normal opioid doses as a result of a chest infection or other infection.

“I have also seen patients who are very overweight, have sleep apnoea and are completely inappropriately on high dose opioids who develop respiratory failure due to the combination. This can result in them ending up in hospital.”

Roger Knaggs, a pain expert at the RPS, said: “In order to improve discharge from hospital after surgery more people are being discharged with supplies of opioids and these may be being continued in the community.

“Equally, there is a misheld perception that as ‘strong’ analgesics they are effective for all types of pain – however, that is not the case for long-term non-cancer pain.”

Harry Shapiro, the director of DrugWise, said: “The key drug here is tramadol. There is a jump in admissions once they included it in the statistics [it was included in 2012]. The drug is one of the most popular opiate painkillers to be prescribed for pain and numbers of prescriptions have risen dramatically in recent years. The drug is also used by street drug users and even recreationally to enhance the effects of alcohol for which reason it is a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act.

“Nobody wants to deprive people of a valuable pain medication, but there needs to be better risk assessment and monitoring at a primary care level – and more dedicated services for people who actually have a problem with opiate painkillers, and clearly more public awareness of the risks of overdose.”

Barry Miller from the FPM added: “The misuse and unnecessary prescription of opioid painkillers are issues of serious concern. While some of the increased use of opioid painkillers in the UK can be attributed to an improved understanding of the effectiveness of these medicines by medical professionals, the Faculty of Pain Medicine is concerned by reports of some unnecessary prescriptions.

“The Faculty of Pain Medicine recognises the management of complex pain is not straightforward. Our greater understanding of these medicines can improve the quality of life for tens of thousands of patients in the UK living with complex pain; however, all healthcare staff prescribing these medicines need to ensure they are not doing more harm than good.”