Patients can overdose on opiate painkillers

By Tom Nordlie • Published: April 21st, 2010
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Nobody should have to live in agony.

And doctors agree.

In recent years, they’ve become more willing to prescribe opiates to treat chronic pain caused by arthritis, back problems, headaches and other conditions.

More than three percent of U-S adults now receive long-term opiate therapy for maladies other than cancer.

Unfortunately, patients can overdose on their medication.

A study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine examined this phenomenon.

Researchers reviewed files on almost ten-thousand adults who were prescribed opiates for chronic, noncancer pain.

They were tracked for an average of three-and-a-half years.

During the study period, eighty overdoses occurred. And six of them were fatal.

Because the patients weren’t all taking the same drug, researchers used a formula to convert everything into equivalent doses of morphine.

They determined that forty percent of the patients were using less than twenty milligrams per day.

About seven percent used between twenty and forty-nine milligrams per day. Almost three percent used fifty to ninety-nine milligrams, and about two percent used one-hundred or more.

As the dosage increased, so did the risk.

Patients using less than twenty milligrams per day had the fewest problems, averaging two overdoses per thousand patients each year.

Compared with that group, patients using the largest dosages had nine times the incidence of overdoses.

Though the researchers didn’t try to determine why the overdoses occurred, possible reasons included accidentally taking too much medication, deliberate overuse, and attempted suicide.

The lesson for patients is clear.

Opiates must be used carefully. Otherwise, they can cause more pain than they relieve.