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Study: Sharp Rise in Opioid Drugs Prescribed for Non-Cancer Pain

Researchers analyze 10-year trend in use of pain medications (September 16)

The prescribing of strong opioid medications for non-cancer pain in the U.S. has nearly doubled over the past decade, according to research conducted at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

At the same time, prescribing of non-opioid pain relievers has been stable or declined.

The new findings were published in the October issue of Medical Care.

Using a nationally representative database of U.S. doctors’ office visits, the researchers analyzed trends in visits for pain and in medications prescribed for pain from 2000 to 2010. The study focused on trends in the use of strong opioid (morphine-related) pain medications for non-cancer pain.

The results showed no significant change in the proportion of doctor’s office visits with pain. Throughout the decade, pain was consistently reported by patients or diagnosed by doctors at about one-fifth of visits. There was no change in the proportion of pain visits treated with pain relievers (analgesics).

However, there was a significant increase in prescriptions for opioid medications. The rate of opioid prescribing for pain visits increased from 11.3% in 2000 to 19.6% in 2010.

At the same time, prescribing of non-opioid pain-relieving drugs remained stable: between 26% and 29% throughout the decade. Out of approximately 164 million pain visits in 2010, about half were treated with some kind of pain-relieving drug: 20% with an opioid and 27% with a non-opioid pain reliever.

An analysis of visits for new-onset musculokeletal pain found a similar increase in opioid prescribing but a significant decrease in prescribing of non-opioid analgesics: from 38% to 29%. The percentage of patients receiving both opioid and non-opioid pain relievers also increased during the period studied.

The authors conclude: “Policy-makers, professional organizations, and providers should re-evaluate prior efforts to improve the identification, treatment, and management of nonmalignant pain and to promote approaches that adequately reflect the importance of nonopioid and non-pharmacologic treatments.”

Source: Wolters Kluwer Health; September 16, 2013.

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