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Opioid prescription twice as likely for depressed patients

Patients with lower back pain who are also depressed may be more likely to be prescribed opioids and receive higher doses than patients without depression, a new study suggests.

Understanding these prescribing patterns sheds new light on the current opioid epidemic and may help determine whether efforts to control prescription opioid abuse are effective.

“Our findings show that these drugs are more often prescribed to low back pain patients who also have symptoms of depression and there is strong evidence that depressed patients are at greater risk for misuse and overdose of opioids,” says John Markman, director of the neurosurgery department’s Translational Pain Research Program at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC) and senior author of the study.

Low back pain is a leading cause of disability in the US, the most common condition for which opioids are a prescribed treatment.

Using data from the Medical Expenditure Panel Survey, a federally-compiled set of large-scale surveys of families and individuals, their medical providers, and employers across the US, the researchers compiled opioid prescription data from 2004-2009. This period is important because it coincides with a steep rise the prescription rates of opioids to treat lower back pain.

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The timeframe of the study also immediately preceded the introduction on a new generation of drugs designed to deter abuse and the implementation of a wide range of policies to address the opioid epidemic and will serve as an important benchmark to evaluate the impact of these efforts.

The researchers found that individuals with low back pain who were positively screened for depression were more than twice as likely to be prescribed an opioid and received more than twice the typical dose of the drug over the course of a year.

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The study also points out the need for researchers to more fully understand the risks and benefits associated with prescribing opioids and other forms of pain medications to individuals with low back pain and depression. Low back pain is also the condition most often studied to approve new pain medications.

“Excluding depressed patients may lead clinicians who rely on these studies to underestimate the risks of opioids when they are prescribed for low back pain in routine practice,” says Markman.

The study appears in PAIN Reports. Funding from the University of Rochester Clinical and Translational Science Institute supported the study.

Source: University of Rochester

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