A study at the University of Manchester has shown prescriptions in the UK for the addictive drug Codeine increased by five times between 2006 and 2017.
The study of 2 million opioid users found that an astonishing one in seven became long-term users within the first year.
Opioids are drugs that are used for pain relief in chronic conditions and post-surgery and have a potential for a dependence and addiction in consumers.
Dr Meghna Jani, lead author of the paper said: “Given the potential harms of these drugs, we think it is imperative to promote safe practices in prescribing opioids.”
Other opioids such as tramadol and oxycodone were shown to have even greater rises in prescriptions over the same period.
Results from the study suggested that social deprivation, history of substance abuse, alcohol abuse, depression and self-harm were associated with long-term opioid use.
Additionally, chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia and rheumatological conditions and patients who were post major surgery were linked with this long-term use.
Professor Will Dixon, Director for the Centre of Epidemiology Versus Arthritis said: “Chronic pain is estimated to affect more than 40% of the country.
“The frequency of this common problem hasn’t changed notably in the last decade, yet these new results show that the use of opioids for treating pain have escalated considerably.
“It is always vital to balance the benefits and potential harms of treatments.”
Physician driving behaviour has been suggested as the main factor behind rising opioid prescriptions being administered to patients in primary care.
Dr Jani said: “This context relates to the tendency of a GP to prescribe an opioid. A number of factors may influence prescribing behaviour including the needs of patients but also the GPs individual training, awareness of the opioids issue and local and national policies.”
Alternatively, some argue that the escalation in prescriptions reflects the increasing needs of individual patients or local populations.
The study also found a geographical disparity of prescribing practices, with the North-West, Yorkshire and South-West being the three regions in the UK with a higher risk of long-term opioid use.
Additionally, there were nearly 26% of GP practices associated with a high proportion of long-term opioid use.
The research stressed that there needs to be a concerted effort in reducing the variability of opioid prescriptions across different regions, practices and prescribers.
Dr Jani said: “One way to do this would be to harmonise prescribing practices across regions through future well-researched policies. This includes lower starting doses of opioids, for shorter durations, regular review in high risk patients and stopping opioids when they are not beneficial.
“The other would be developing targeted interventions in high risk groups including areas of social deprivation and for those undergoing major surgery.”
Please note: If you are a patient taking opioids, do not stop your medication, as it may be dangerous and always speak to your doctor first.