In the first ever review of existing research into the topic, researchers have uncovered exactly how much deaths due to such drugs – which outnumber deaths from heroin and cocaine combined – have increased. According to the team, the US and Canada rank number 1 and number 2 in per capita opioid consumption, respectively. And in 2010 in the US alone, prescribed painkillers were involved in over 16,000 deaths.
And where are patients getting the drugs? The internet? The street? No it turns out most are prescribed by doctors. As Prof McGill, one of the authors of the Canadian study published in the American Journal of Public health says the main determinants of opioid-related death are:
- increased prescription and sales of opioids
- Increased use of strong, long-lasting opioids (including Oxycontin and methadone)
- Combined use of opioids and other drugs and alcohol
- Social and demographic factors
Unless there has been an epidemic of acute pain in North America, then these drugs are being over-prescribed. There is little evidence that opioids are effective in chronic pain and some evidence that they might make it worse. Although Prof King says the solutions are complex, I’m not so sure the start of the process is so hard. First do no harm. Doctors need to stop prescribing inappropriately.