'Disaster' looms over addiction to painkillers

Prescriptions for powerful drugs have soared in past 20 years, with death through overdose rising in their wake

They are the most powerful painkillers that family doctors have at their disposal, and as the queue of patients suffering from chronic pain grows longer doctors have been handing them out in greater numbers.

Click HERE to view graphic (57k jpg)

A review by the National Treatment Agency for Substance Abuse, published in June, found a six-fold increase in the prescribing of opioid analgesics by GPs from 228 million items in 1991 to 1.38bn items in 2009.

Brian Iddon, the former chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Misuse, which reported in 2009, warned that the UK faced a similar epidemic to that in North America within a decade. Des Spence, a GP in Glasgow, wrote in the BMJ that the increased prescribing of opioids for chronic pain – other than that caused by cancer – was a "disaster in the making".

The increase is being driven by drug-company marketing that is fuelling patient demand. As populations age in the UK and across Europe, and more succumb to conditions such as arthritis, between 20 and 50 per cent are estimated to suffer from chronic pain.

Chronic pain caused by injury or disease has been poorly treated in the past and specialists acknowledge the growing use of powerful painkillers is a sign of a more compassionate society, prepared to dispense comfort to those in need. But there is a risk, as doses rise and dependence grows, that the dangers outweigh the benefits.

The review, Addiction to Medicines, by the National Treatment Agency for Substance Abuse, found that 3,735 patients receiving treatment for addiction said their primary problem was with prescription medicines, just 2 per cent of the total in drug-treatment services.

But the authors admitted that most of those with such a problem would be likely to seek treatment from their GPs.

Dr Cathy Stannard, a consultant in pain medicine at North Bristol NHS Trust and the author of Opioids in Chronic Pain, said: "There has been a huge increase in prescribing of opioid painkillers and they are being overused. I run a pain clinic where patients are coming in on 10 times the recommended dose. They keep going back to their doctors complaining of pain and the doctors don't know what to do – so they increase the dose.

"With other conditions, if the drug isn't working, doctors stop it and try something else. But it doesn't seem to be common clinical practice for doctors to say, 'if this painkiller isn't working we should stop it'."

Dependence on painkillers in the UK remained a hidden problem because there was "absolutely no data", Dr Stannard said.

The Public Health minister Anne Milton said: "Next month, we will convene a round-table meeting of experts to discuss action needed in light of new evidence from two recent Department of Health commissioned studies on addiction to prescription medicines. We will discuss how healthcare professionals can best address the issue."

Life and Style
Steve Shaw shows Kate how to get wet behind the ears and how to align her neck
healthSteven Shaw - the 'Buddha of Breaststroke' - applies Alexander Technique to the watery sport
Arts and Entertainment
The sight of a bucking bronco in the shape of a pink penis was too much for Hollywood actor and gay rights supporter Martin Sheen, prompting him to boycott a scene in the TV series Grace and Frankie
footballShirt then goes on sale on Gumtree
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’
voicesGrace Dent on Grange Hill and Terry Sue-Patt
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Twin Peaks stars Joan Chen, Michael Ontkean, Kyle Maclachlan and Piper Laurie
tvName confirmed for third series
Cameron Jerome
footballCanaries beat Boro to gain promotion to the Premier League
Arts and Entertainment
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

    £40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

    Guru Careers: Software Developer

    £35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

    SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

    Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

    £25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

    Day In a Page

    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine