Big increase in hospital admissions for opioid painkiller overdoses
The number of patients admitted to hospital for overdosing on powerful opioid painkillers has more than doubled in a decade, with doctors saying it is a “very worrying” consequence of the drugs being prescribed too readily.
Data from NHS Digital shows an increase in people attending hospital with poisoning from prescription opioids such as codeine, morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl rising from 4,891 in 2005-06 to 11,660 last year in England.
Dr Jane Quinlan, a consultant in anaesthesia and pain management at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS foundation trust, described the increase as very worrying. But she said the figures did not make it clear whether the rise was related to people with addiction taking drugs not prescribed to them or whether it was patients who had been prescribed opioids for their pain taking too much by accident. Quinlan said: “These figures confirm fears that the increase in opioid prescribing and availability has broader consequences.”
A 10-year data timeline shows numbers of patients admitted for opioid poisoning have risen year on year since 2005, reaching 12,254 in 2013-14 before dropping the year after and then rising again to more than 11,660 last year – though it should be noted that tramadol was only added to admissions data in 2012. Over the same period prescriptions of opioids have risen steeply, with the number issued rising from 12m in 2006 to 24m in 2016.
Harry Shapiro, the director of DrugWise, an online drug information service, said: “The key drug here is tramadol. There is a jump in admissions once they included it in the statistics.
“The drug is one of the most popular opiate painkillers to be prescribed for pain and numbers of prescriptions have risen dramatically in recent years. The drug is also used by street drug users and even recreationally to enhance the effects of alcohol, for which reason it is a class C drug under the Misuse of Drugs Act.”
Doctors have warned about prescriptions for painkillers being given too readily, with recent estimates suggesting more than 192,000 people in the UK could be dependent on such drugs as a result.
Dr Barry Miller from the Faculty of Pain Medicine at the Royal College of Anaesthetists said: “The misuse and unnecessary prescription of opioid painkillers are issues of serious concern.
“While some of the increased use of opioid painkillers in the UK can be attributed to an improved understanding of the effectiveness of these medicines by medical professionals, the Faculty of Pain Medicine is concerned by reports of some unnecessary prescriptions.”