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UK Opioid Crisis?

Published on October 15th, a study in the PLOS Journal of medicine suggests that a massive spike in opioid use in the United Kingdom may be signaling to the previously unknown presence of a prescription drug abuse epidemic similar to the one currently gripping the United States.

The study, authored by professor William Dixon & colleagues, looked at electronic records from the Clinical Practice Research Datalink of 1,968,742 patients. Patients’ mean age was 51 +/- 19 years, and 57% of them were females.

The researchers found that codeine, a painkiller, was being prescribed five times as frequently in 2017 compared to 2006 – reaching 24.56% of the nearly 2 million patients. In addition to this dramatic rise of codeine, they also found that prescription rates of the medications morphine and buprenorphine had increased during the same period.

Oxycodone saw the most dramatic rise, and was seeing 30 times more use than in 2006. The actual usage numbers, however, still pale in comparison to codeine: oxycodone reached just 1.69% of the patients included in the study.

Of those who began using the drugs, 14.6% would become long-term users. The researchers also looked at a wealth of other information about the patients, and concluded that long-term use of these painkiller medications appears to be related to outside substance abuse, alcohol abuse, self-harm, recent major surgery, as well as a wealth of other events or medical conditions.

The team identified three regions in which there was a higher concentration of long-term opioid use: North-West, South-West, and Yorkshire. Interestingly, this suggests that this spike in painkiller use in the UK did not follow the same economic trends as the US’s opioid crisis, where usage tended to be most severe in poorer areas. According to a list of average GDP by region in the UK, Yorkshire falls somewhere around the middle, while North-West and South-West rank in the upper 50%.

According to Dixon, chronic pain affected over 40% of the total UK population. He stressed that the frequency, although high, is not a cause for concern, as it has not increased significantly for many years.

“These new results show that the use of opioids for treating pain has escalated considerably”, says Dixon. “It is always vital to balance the benefits and potential harms of treatments.”

Due to the newness of this publication, it is currently unclear / unknown whether the sharp increases of painkiller prescriptions to UK patients is a result of aggressive marketing of painkillers to health professionals. Ambient social factors, such as a rising acceptance of the use of painkillers, could have led health professionals to be more likely to recommend such solutions to patients with chronic pain.

More information is needed to identify the causes of this study’s findings, as well as how it has impacted UK communities.

Written by Joseph Detrano, CAS Science Writer
Disclaimer: The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies