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Study Finds More Than Half of Opioid Prescriptions Go to People With Mood Disorders


In the midst of what has been called an “opioid epidemic,” a new study says more than half of opioid prescriptions are written for people with mood disorders, including anxietydepression and bipolar disorder. Although many people with chronic illnesses or injuries use opioids to manage pain, according to National Institute of Drug Abuse, 8 to 12 percent of those prescribed opioids develop an opioid use disorder and an estimated 4 to 6 percent of those misusing their prescription go on to use heroin.

The study, which was published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, also found that 19 percent of Americans with mood disorders use prescription opioids, compared to 5 percent of the general population

Although the stat may sound alarming, according to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), this finding isn’t surprising. While those with mood disorders are more at risk of developing an addiction, they’re also more likely to deal with chronic pain. According to a piece in the Psychiatric Times, “27 percent of patients with pain in primary care clinics meet criteria for major depression.”

DBSA scientific advisory board co-chairs, Greg Simon, MD, MPH and Gary Sachs, MD, told The Mighty in a joint response:

This is not a surprise. We know that people who live with mood disorders and other mental health conditions are more likely to also have chronic pain problems. And we know that people with mental health conditions have more difficulty stopping medications like opioids once they have started.

The senior author of the study, Dr. Brian Sites, also speculated that, “Physicians might be more sympathetic to patients with preexisting conditions, making them more likely to prescribe opioids,” STAT news reported.

But as someone pointed out in the comment section of STAT of a piece about the findings by STAT news, “Chronic pain can be a huge factor in developing depression. This is a ‘who came first, the chicken or the egg?’ kind of study.”

This isn’t the first study to tie physical and mental health together. Earlier this month, another study found having a chronic illness increases your risk of dying by suicide.

As far as what should be done with this information, the DBSA Scientific Advisory Board recommends patients and clinicians discuss the dilemma they face together — balancing doing as much as possible to alleviate pain while planning against the risk of future addiction.

“Given the dangers of long-term opioid use, it’s even more important that people with mental health conditions have access to effective mental health treatment and effective non-medication treatments for pain problems,” the DBSA Scientific Advisory Board co-chairs said.

In response to the findings, the American Chronic Pain Association told The Mighty, “We think that people with pain should receive a balanced approach for pain management. This means all available therapies that the healthcare professional deems necessary.”

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction and need help, you can call SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Thinkstock photo via BackyardProduction