Counting the cost of long-term use of common drugs

Painkillers accounted for two-thirds of all drug-induced deaths in Australia in 2016, according to data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). And the long-term use of common drugs can have serious side effects.

In its most recent report, the ABS found that almost 70 per cent of drug-related deaths in Australia in 2016 were caused by prescription drugs.

Benzodiazepines, a drug commonly prescribed for anxiety, accounts for 37 per cent of that number. Codeine, morphine and oxycodone are claiming 500 lives a year, up from 189 in 2003.

And there are fears that Australians already addicted to over-the-counter painkillers may move to harder drugs when new restrictions come into force next year. From March, products such as Nurofen Plus, Panadeine, Mersyndol and Codral will be available only with a prescription.

With studies claiming that one in three Australians aged 65-plus is living with chronic pain, and many are taking opioids, the dangers of drug abuse and overdosing are clear.

Chronic pain is persistent pain anywhere in the body and can be caused by any of a wide range of conditions including diabetes, arthritis and damaged nerves.

Over many months, chronic pain can cause depression and have a detrimental effect on the body’s immune system, so painkillers are important. But over what period of time can these products be taken safely?

Opioids have long been recognised as addictive, but the findings of a new UK study released this month show that common painkillers also increase the risk of obesity and sleep disorders.

Experts at Newcastle University found that painkillers, such as gabapentinoids and opiates, doubled the risk of obesity and were associated with poor sleep. The study of more than 133,000 participants found that people on opiates and cardio-metabolic drugs reported 95 per cent rates of obesity as opposed to those on cardio-metabolic drugs only.

Dr Sophie Cassidy, Research Associate at the Institute of Cellular Medicine at Newcastle University, said: “In the last two decades there has been a significant increase in the number of people being prescribed both opioid and non-opioid medications to treat chronic pain.

“We already know that opiates are dependency-forming, but this study also found patients taking opiates have the worst health. Obesity rates are much higher and the patients reported sleeping poorly.

“These results add further weight to calls for these chronic pain medications to be prescribed for shorter periods.”

The link between opioids and obesity was linked to the fact that they acted as a sedative which means patients were less active. They have also been shown to alter taste perception so the user craves sugar and sweet foods.

Opioids are also known to worsen snoring and untreated sleep apnoea, as well as causing problems with nocturnal hypertension.

Dr Suzanne Neilsen, from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), said that the increase in the number of pharmaceutical opioid-related deaths in the past decade was fuelling fears that Australia was headed down the same road as the United States, where opioid addiction had become a national emergency.

So what can you do if you are taking these painkillers?
Talk about your situation with your doctor and ask whether there have been any breakthroughs since your last visit. You could also research alternative ways to relieve your pain.  

Written by Janelle Ward

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