An increase in the number of people prescribed opioid painkillers in the UK has resulted in drug counsellors and doctors warning that the policies of the NHS could result in a higher number of people becoming addicted to drugs.
In a recent BBC investigation, reporters discovered that almost 24 million opioid tablets, ranging from tramadol to morphine and fentanyl, were prescribed in the UK last year. The number is an increase of almost 90% from 2007, just one decade ago.
Opioid painkillers can be highly addictive. The drugs are often prescribed for recurring injuries or after surgery as part of legitimate pain management treatment, but users can quickly develop an addiction to the drugs even at the prescribed dosage.
Prescription rates for opioid medicines are highest in industrial areas of the country, with areas in northern England topping the list. Many regions in the north have opioid prescribing rates as much as four times higher than London, according to ONS data.
Workplace injuries that cause back, neck, wrist pain and other common injuries are often all it takes for a patient to be prescribed powerful opioid medication.
According to Nicki Hari, a drug counsellor for UK Addiction Treatment, many doctors prescribe medications such as tramadol “without asking too many questions.” Hari claims that the loose prescription habits are “creating drug addicts” and worsening the problem of drug addiction.
Hari has extensive personal experience with opioid painkiller. As a 25 year old, she became addicted to prescription medicine and “manipulated” doctors into prescribing her the drugs to maintain her addiction, often requesting unnecessary surgery to be prescribed medication.
Her claims of overprescription have, to some extent, been supported by professionals in the medical industry.
Professor Jonathan Chick, of rehabilitation clinic Castle Craig Hospital, claims that the total number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction has roughly doubled in the last five years, and that there’s “definitely a link” between rising prescriptions and addiction levels.
Doctors have also acknowledged the scale of the problem. Dr Luke Mordecai of University College London Hospitals notes that opioid painkiller addiction often affects areas with low incomes more than prosperous areas.
Mordecai noted that doctors often face significant pressure from patients to prescribe certain drugs, noting that “patients demand they get given these strong painkillers” by their doctors.
The government has also taken notice. In January, a review into the level of prescriptions for opioid painkillers was launched by Public Health England. The report is due to be released in early 2019 and could prompt a review of policy towards drug prescription and addiction.
In the meantime, prescription painkiller abuse remains one of the biggest health issues in the UK. From 2016 to 2017, an estimated 2.3 million people aged 16 to 59 used prescription pain medication without a prescription, according to a survey by the BBC England data unit.
While many users of prescription pain medication cease using the medicine when required, a large percentage struggle with dependence and addiction. When prescriptions end, users are often drawn towards the black market, where more dangerous illicit drugs can be purchased.