A report has found that more than 57 million prescriptions for opioids such as tramadol, codeine and fentanyl, were issued to UK patients last year. The equivalent of one prescription every 108 minutes.
The report, created by Sapphire Clinics, found that one in seven (14%) chronic pain patients prescribed opioid medications claim they became dependent or addicted, while strong side effects reportedly stopped one in four (23%) from living a normal life.
61% of GPs said they were aware of the risks of prescribing opioids, but said there are limited options available to them. Despite concerns about dependency and addiction, nearly every GP (93%) in the UK has prescribed opioids for chronic pain in the last month.
Opioid dependency and fatalities are at record highs in the UK. The NHS has been working to reduce the overuse of opioids, with the number of prescriptions falling over the last 4 years. However, GPs report that a chronic pain patient will still be prescribed two opioid-based medications on average before being offered a non-opioid alternative. This is despite NICE guidelines recommending that the risks outweigh the benefits of prescribing opioids in most causes of chronic non-cancer pain.
The study also found that prescriptions for other high-strength painkillers, such as gabapentinoids, have increased by 35% since 2018. Gabapentinoids were originally developed to treat seizure disorders, and are also associated with a risk of dependence and addiction, causing concern that opioids are being replaced by other risky medications.
The report highlights a discrepancy between research into medical cannabis as an alternative for pain treatment and doctor understanding. Over half (53%) of GPs surveyed were unaware that cannabis-based products for medicinal use could be prescribed legally in the UK. 81% admit to having limited or no knowledge of cannabis-based medicines. However, 42% said they were aware of patients who are self-medicating their health conditions with self-procured cannabis.
30% of GPs surveyed did express willingness to learn more about medical cannabis and one in four said they would like to train in medical cannabis prescribing, however, 45% of GPs said they want to see more clinical evidence.
Discussing the report, Simon Erridge, Head of Research and Access at Sapphire Clinics said “The widespread use of opioids and high-strength painkillers in the UK is at a critical point. These findings reflect what I know from my own clinical practice. As a doctor myself, I am keenly aware of how limited the options for treating chronic pain can seem, and this was a driving force for becoming involved with medical cannabis research. Whilst more research is always needed, there is growing evidence on the effects of medical cannabis when prescribed to patients in the UK – but as this research suggests patients and GPs simply don’t know about it.
“GPs and pain specialists need to be given more options to help patients and avoid defaulting to medications that carry such significant risks without there being clear evidence of benefit in most cases. In addition to addressing access to non-pharmacological therapies, the government needs to fund the clinical trials required to establish whether medical cannabis can be recognised as a licensed treatment on the NHS.”