While health officials continue efforts to reduce the use of powerful and addictive opioids, amid an on-going epidemic of abuse in the United States, the findings of a new study indicate that one-in-three people with lupus regularly use the controversial painkillers.
Health guidelines warn lupus patients to avoid taking opioid painkillers, as the medications generally have limited effectiveness for pain associated with the condition, and increase the risk of addiction and other side effects. However, in a study published in the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, more than 30% of individuals diagnosed with lupus are prescribed the drugs.
CDC researchers conducted the Michigan Lupus Epidemiology and Surveillance Program from 2014 to 2015, using data from 650 patients; some with lupus and some without.
Overall, 31% of patients with systemic lupus erythematous used prescription opioid painkillers, such as Vicodin or OxyContin, compared to only 8% of patients without lupus who used opioids. The study also found that two-thirds of the lupus patients using opioids had been using the painkillers for more than one year.
According to the findings, for many lupus patients, opioid use started with a visit to the emergency room. Those who visited an ER in the past year were twice as likely as other patients to use opioids. Additionally, nearly one-quarter of lupus patients were using two or more painkiller medications.
Rheumatic diseases like lupus are the leading cause of chronic pain. However, opioids are not recommended for pain relief among systemic lupus patients or patients with other rheumatic diseases. In addition to addiction risks, long-term opioid carry a risk of osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and other health complications.
Recent research has found that opioids account for nearly 70% of all drug overdose deaths in the U.S.
In many situations, opioids are not fully effective in treating the pain resulting from lupus and other rheumatic diseases and may lead to addiction and abuse.
Non-opioid therapies are often more effective for treating lupus pain, but are often underused. Non-drug treatments, like physical activity and teaching patients how to cope with pain, are safer and may be more effective in the long run, according to many health experts.
CDC researchers warn that strategies for reducing opioid painkiller use are needed in rheumatic disease populations, including discontinuing opioid use when appropriate.
Doctors managing lupus and other rheumatic disease, including ER doctors, must be aware of the risks opioids pose to these patients and consider recommending non-opioid pain management strategies, the CDC researchers determined.