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Chronic pain and mental illness may increase risk of opioid overdose

Researchers investigated 13,000 cases of opioid overdoses in the US.



Photo: Wikimedia

As there seems to be no send in sight for the opioid epidemic, researchers are refusing to hang their coats at the idea that opioid overdose is a widely understood topic in research.

In a new study, hoping to shed more light on the opioid epidemic, researchers found that over 60 percent of opioid overdose deaths saw evidence of a chronic pain condition and psychiatric disorder.

The study, published in the American Journal of Psychiatry, analyzed more than 13,000 opioid overdose cases between 2001 to 2007 associated with the Medicaid health care program; the study was conducted at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC).

Researchers examined the medical history of all overdose cases, including any clinical diagnosis and drug prescriptions.

In the final year of life, researchers found that more than 50 percent of the 13,000 cases were diagnosed with chronic pain. Also, many suffered from depression and anxiety. This led to the discovery of a significant amount of prescriptions for both opioids (pain-killer) and benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety), the study found.

The combination of both opioids and benzodiazepines, when taken incorrectly, whether accidental or not, may increase the risk of intoxication, coma, followed by respiratory depression, and then subsequently, death.

“The frequent occurrence of treated chronic pain and mental health conditions among overdose decedents underscores the importance of offering substance use treatment services in clinics that treat patients with chronic pain and mental health problems. Such a strategy might increase early clinical intervention in patients who are at high risk for fatal opioid overdose,” said Mark Olfson, the lead researcher.

Authors of the study have issued warnings against combining opioids with benzodiazepines, as the anti-anxiety drugs might contribute to a fatal opioid overdose.

“This medication combination is known to increase the risk of respiratory depression, which is the unusually slow and shallow breathing that is the primary cause of death in most fatal opioid overdoses.”

The number of deaths associated with opioid overdose has quadrupled over the past 15 years in the US, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).


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