We are currently facing one of the deadliest drug epidemics in history. Since 1999, the rate of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids has quadrupled, resulting in the deaths of more than 15,000 Americans each year.
As a result, we’ve invested heavily in research and addiction prevention programs to help curb the opioid epidemic. And, researchers may have discovered yet another tool that can be used to prevent more lives from being lost.
In a study recently published in the BMJ (formerly known as the British Medical Journal), scientists found that among opioid users, individuals who also used benzodiazepines at the same time were twice as likely to visit the emergency room for a drug overdose.
Researchers reviewed the medical history of 320,000 patients and compared the outcomes of individuals who were only prescribed opioids and patients who were concurrently prescribed a benzodiazepine such as Xanax or Valium. They found that individuals taking both medications were substantially more likely to suffer from a drug overdose.
“Even if we didn’t change opioid prescribing at all, the data here suggest that we could cut overdoses dramatically just [by] getting prescribers to not put people on a benzodiazepine at the same time,” said Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University and one of the lead authors of the study.
Researchers also discovered yet another troubling trend within the data. The use of opioids and benzodiazepines posed a significant health risk, yet the rate of patients being prescribed both is increasing. Among the pool of patients that they studied, the rate of concurrent prescriptions increased by 89 percent.
While additional research is needed, clinicians and policymakers could use these findings to help curb the current rate of overdose deaths by adopting new guidelines for prescribing opioids and medications designed to help treat anxiety and panic disorder. In addition, this research suggests that clinicians should not only exercise caution when prescribing opioids, but may also consider holistic alternatives to treat chronic pain.
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