Patients with rheumatic and musculoskeletal conditions are particularly vulnerable to long-term opioid use.
A study of GP research database between 2006 and 2021 found one in three of those with rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia had received long-term prescriptions for the potentially addictive drugs to manage their pain.
Overall, the team analysed more than 840,000 patient records and looked at different patterns of opioid use depending on frequency and number of prescriptions.
There were 1,081,216 new episodes of opioid use among all patients with just under 17% transitioning to ‘standard’ long term use defined as three or more opioid prescriptions within a 90-day period, or more than 90 days opioid supply in the first year.
Another 11% were categorised as having ‘stringent’ opioid prescribing with 10 or more opioid prescriptions over more than 90 days, or 120 plus days of opioid supply in the first year.
The research also found that 22% moved onto ‘broad’ opioid prescriptions which was classed as more than three opioid prescriptions at monthly intervals in the first year.
Reporting the findings in the Annals of Rheumatic Diseases, the team said the highest proportion of long-term opioid users were patients with fibromyalgia—27.5%, 21%, and 34% for standard, stringent and broad prescribing categories.
This was followed by those with rheumatoid arthritis (26%, 18.5%, and 32% respectively) and those with axial spondyloarthritis at 24%, 17%, and 30%.
The results also showed an increasing proportion of patients with systemic lupus erythematosus and fibromyalgia who moved from one opioid prescription to long-term prescribing between 2006 and 2019.
But the converse pattern was true in rheumatoid arthritis with a decreasing trend over the time period, although the researchers noted the overall proportion remained high at 24.5% in 2020.
NHS England data shows GPs and pharmacists have already helped cut opioid prescriptions by 450,000 in under four years. This equates to an 8% drop which has been estimated to have saved nearly 350 lives and prevented more than 2,100 incidents of patient harm.
A 2019 review by Public Health England, found one in four adults were prescribed medications associated with dependence, including opioids, benzodiazepines and antidepressants.
NICE has since issued guidance on safe prescribing and withdrawal management for addictive drugs.
Dr Joyce Huang, study author and research associate in the Division of Musculoskeletal and Dermatological sciences at the University of Manchester, said: ‘Our study does not intend to stigmatise patients who use opioids.
‘We want to highlight the high frequency of long-term opioid use needs to be optimised and prevent people living with [rheumatic and musculoskeletal disorders] from opioid-related harm.’
Study lead Dr Meghna Jani, senior lecturer at the Centre for Epidemiology Versus Arthritis, said the results show that a ‘considerable proportion of patients’ with these conditions starting opioids for the first time, transition to long-term use that is much higher than people who are starting an opioid for non-cancer pain in general which is around one in seven people.
‘Because long-term opioid therapy is associated with poor health outcomes, these findings warrant vigilance when prescribing these drugs.
‘Long term use is particularly pronounced in fibromyalgia patients, who suffer chronic widespread pain for which there are no disease modifying treatment options. This is also more common than we initially thought, in rheumatoid arthritis and axial spondyloarthritis.’