Deadly Market Forces in Narcotics

Lately, I’ve been shocked and dismayed by the frequent headlines about the number of overdoses and deaths due to narcotics throughout our country.  A timely article (RG Frank, HA Pollack. NEJM 2017; 376: 605-7) addresses one aspect of this threat to public health that I was not aware of previously.

  • Fentanyl, which is a powerful synthetic opioid, is much cheaper to produce than heroin.  In addition, fentanyl can result in death much more quickly as well.
  • Presumably due to its lower cost, suppliers ‘cut’ heroin with the drug.  As a consequence, fentanyl is increasingly responsible for opioid deaths. The authors estimate that from 2012 to 2014, the number of deaths due to fentanyl doubled to 5544 and that “41% of the roughly 7100 heroin-related deaths during this period involved fentanyl.”
  • Fentanyl has been found in multiple counterfeit illicit drugs.  For example, in a recent analysis from Canada, “89% of seized counterfeit OxyContin tablets” had fentanyl present.
  • Naloxone can reverse fentanyl overdoses but needs to be given more quickly and sometimes multiple doses are needed.

My take: The presence of fentanyl in illicit drugs means that even experimenting once could be fatal.


Related blog posts:


Narcotic Slippery Slope

In a recent article (NEJM 2017; 376: 663-73), ML Barnett show that opioid-prescribing patterns of emergency physicians may increase the risk of long-term use. By focusing on variation of prescribing practices among physicians at the same hospitals and with a sample size of ~380,000 patients, the authors provide convincing data that starting opioids even for an intended brief period can have lasting consequences. This study focused on medicare beneficiaries (average age ~68 yrs) who received narcotics from either higher-frequency or lower-frequency physician prescribers.

In their discussion, the authors state “if our results represent a causal relationship, for every 49 patients prescribed a new opioid in the emergency department who might not otherwise use opioids, 1 will become a long-term user.”

My  take: Starting a narcotic may be the first step in a long treacherous road.

Related blog posts:


CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain

Full Text: CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain—United States, 2016

D Dowell et al. JAMA. Published online March 15, 2016. doi:10.1001/jama.2016.1464 .


  • No evidence shows a long-term benefit of opioids in pain and function vs no opioids for chronic pain with outcomes examined at least 1 year later (with most placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials ≤6 weeks in duration).

  • Extensive evidence shows the possible harms of opioids (including opioid use disorder, overdose, and motor vehicle injury).

  • Extensive evidence suggests some benefits of nonpharmacologic and nonopioid pharmacologic therapy, with less harm.

CDC: “We know of no other medication routinely used for a nonfatal condition that kills patients so frequently,”

1st Six Recommendations (12 total)

1. Nonpharmacologic therapy and nonopioid pharmacologic therapy are preferred for chronic pain. Clinicians should consider opioid therapy only if expected benefits for both pain and function are anticipated to outweigh risks to the patient. If opioids are used, they should be combined with nonpharmacologic therapy and nonopioid pharmacologic therapy, as appropriate. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 3)

2. Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals with all patients, including realistic goals for pain and function, and consider how opioid therapy will be discontinued if benefits do not outweigh risks. Clinicians should continue opioid therapy only if there is clinically meaningful improvement in pain and function that outweighs risks to patient safety. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 4)

3. Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy and patient and clinician responsibilities for managing therapy. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 3)

4. When starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release/long-acting (ER/LA) opioids. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 4)

5. When opioids are started, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dosage.  (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 3)

6. Long-term opioid use often begins with treatment of acute pain. When opioids are used for acute pain, clinicians should prescribe the lowest effective dose of immediate-release opioids and should prescribe no greater quantity than needed for the expected duration of pain severe enough to require opioids. Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than 7 days will rarely be needed. (Recommendation category: A; evidence type: 4)

Other points:

  • Avoid concurrent benzodiazepines
  • Review state prescription drug monitoring program to look for dangerous combination therapies and prior opiod dosing
  • Consider risk mitigation strategies (eg. naloxone)
  • Suggests urine screening at start to screen for illicit substance abuse which increases risk

USAToday’s review of these guidelines: CDC issues new guideline on opiods

Bottomline: This report is very important for those who prescribe opiods for chronic pain.

Law Library, Univ of Michigan

Law Library, Univ of Michigan

Increased Narcotic Usage in Pediatric Patients with IBD

A summary from the AGA Journals Blog of a recent article highlights the increased use of chronic narcotics, not related to surgery, in pediatric patients with IBD.

Here’s a link:  Chronic Use of Narcotics in Children with IBD and here’s an excerpt:

Jessie P. Buckley et al used data from a large insurance claims database, collected from 2010 through 2011, to compare the prescription narcotic use among children (younger than 18 years old) with and without IBD who were not undergoing surgery. Buckley et al also searched for factors associated with narcotic treatment of pediatric patients with IBD.

Of 4344 children with IBD during the study period, 63% had Crohn’s disease, and 37% had ulcerative colitis.

Buckley et al found that 5.6% among children with IBD vs 2.3% in the general population received chronic narcotic therapy. Associations between IBD and narcotic use revealed a particularly high burden among children with concomitant anxiety or depression.

Cover of Clinical Gastroenterology & Hepatology

Cover of Clinical Gastroenterology & Hepatology –The pills look cool but wrong age depicted

Epidemic of Prescription Drug Overdoses

More information on the epidemic of drug overdoses: MMWR 2012: 61: 10-13.

In 2007, in U.S. one death due to unintentional drug overdose occurred every 19 minutes (27,000 cases), primarily due to opioid analgesics.  In addition, for every death, there were nine persons admitted for drug treatment, and 35 emergency room visits.

The escalating drug use can be quantified.  In 1997, drug distribution through pharmacies delivered the equivalent of 96 mg of morphine per person whereas in 2007 the amount was 700 mg per person; 700 mg is enough for every person in U.S. to receive a three-week course of Vicodin (hydrocodone/acetaminophen 5mg q4 hours).

Only 10% of these patients were seeking care from multiple doctors; yet this 10% accounted for 40% of the cases of overdosage.

Prevention strategies:

  • Prescription data to prevent doctor shopping & reduce inappropriate use of opioids/selling excessive opioid prescriptions
  • Enforcing laws against ‘pill mills’
  • Improve medical practice in prescribing opioids

Additional references/previous blog entries:

Epidemic: Responding to America’s Prescription Drug Abuse Crisis  Whitehouse plan

Pediatric pharmaceutical poisoning

Deadly consequences of pain management

Why “therapeutic dose” of codeine can kill

Deadly consequences of pain management

A big part of a pediatric gastroenterologist’s daily practice is trying to help patients with recurrent abdominal pain.  The goals are to determine the reason for the pain and then to offer the best therapy.  In many cases, these goals can be quite difficult.  With regard to diagnosis, the majority of patients have ‘functional’ pain and the diagnosis is in part a diagnosis of exclusion, trying to rule out other potential etiologies.  With regard to treatment, this is also difficult.

Narcotics are not often given for pediatric abdominal pain, but are used under certain circumstances.  These medications can have unintended consequences.  One consequence of frequent narcotic usage is that individuals may tolerate pain more poorly after receiving narcotics.  A useful review of narcotic overuse was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2010.  (NEJM 2010; 363: 1981).

“Deaths from unintentional drug overdoses in the United States have been rising steeply since the early 1990s …and are the second-leading cause of accidental death, with 27,658 such deaths recorded in 2007.”  11,499 of the deaths in 2007 were due to unintentional narcotic overdose.  In comparison, in the same year, there were about 6,000 deaths from cocaine & 2,000 deaths from heroin.

Besides the number of deaths, the other alarming factor has been a sharp rise (10-fold since 1990) in the usage of narcotics in the past two decades.  One of the factors driving this increase has been a compassionate interest in relieving pain.  The availability of these drugs throughout the country even in remote regions allows these abusable drugs to be more accessible than illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin.   While the availability of these medications may increase the rates of suicide, most opioid-overdose deaths are tragic accidents. Often, laboratory tests identify one or more substances in addition to the opioid, indicating that the depressant effects of alcohol or other drugs were additive  in causing death.

With regard to gastroenterology/pediatric gastroenterology, another important aspect of narcotics use is the association of increased mortality risk with inflammatory bowel disease.  This has been shown by analyzing a registry for infliximab (IFX) (Lichtenstein G, DDW 2010, abstracts#T1039 & T1040.).  In the TREAT registry with 6273 patients (3334 treated with IFX), the only risk factors for increased mortality/increased infections were steroids and narcotics.  This study also showed that IFX did not increase mortality, serious infections, malignancy or lymphoma in this cohort.

Additional Reference:

Clin Gastro & Hep 2008; 6: 978. Refractory abdominal pain review.  ‘Narcotics over time increase frequency, duration and intensity of pain.’ Practical recommendations:
treat constipation, withdraw narcotics, consider mental health (CBT/hypnosis/psychotherapy/stress mgt), and possible TCA or SNRI therapy.