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Study on Painkiller Side Effect Dangers for Elderly Patients

elderly patient with doctorNarcotic painkillers such as opioids can make a major difference to those suffering from chronic or seriously debilitating pain. While these prescription medications can be an effective therapy when used in moderation, new research suggests that elderly patients are more at risk for injury, hospitalization and death. The study, recently released in the Journal of the American Medical Association, reveals that more and more senior patients are being harmed from painkiller side effects incurred from potent drugs like Oxycodone and Hydrocodone.

According to the findings, between 1993 and 2012, there was a significant spike in hospitalizations among elderly patients who were prescribed narcotic pain killers, with the bulk of those patients aged 85 or older.  The rate of hospitalizations was lower for patients younger than 85.

Painkiller side effects study

The research was reported in the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and highlights the dangers facing seniors who often suffer from crippling conditions that necessitate prescription opioid therapy.  Though the study discovered that older patients are less inclined to abuse narcotic drugs, it found they are more at risk for experiencing adverse opioid side effects, including liver damage, cardiac events, falls, cognitive impairment, and in some unfortunate cases, death.

The research notes that the largest yearly increase in opioid painkiller-associated hospitalizations was experienced by Medicare. Statistically, Oxycodone and codeine proved the most dangerous, with the risk of death among elderly patients increasing after just 30 days of use.

“Even in the 65- to 84-year-olds, what you’re dealing with are patients with multiple comorbidities and a body that has less resilience,” said the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Wilson Compton, MD.

Narcotic over prescriptions a major problem

This painkiller study comes amid rising concerns about narcotic overprescriptions in the United States today. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a separate study that revealed a four-fold increase in painkiller overdose deaths over the last 12 years.

Authors of “Analysis Reveals Large Increase in Hospitalizations in Recent Years Among Older Patients Prescribed Opioids,” indicated that health care providers may be prescribing pain killers too readily to their patients, without first attempting other safer treatments such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories or physical therapy. Researchers also determined that doctors are prescribing large opioid doses unnecessarily.

“We certainly have a situation where we have an overreliance on opioids, particularly for long-term painful conditions,” said Wilson Compton, MD, adding, “This is an important public health issue, and the elderly are a major part of the population that’s impacted.”

Popular opioid painkillers prescribed include:

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin or Lorcet)
  • Codeine
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet or Roxicodone)
  • Morphine (Ortho-Morph SR, Kadian or Avinza)
  • Methadone (Methadose)
  • Naloxone combined with Oxycodone (Targiniq ER)
  • Fentanyl (Fentora, Actiq)

Derivatives of morphine and other prescription pain killers come with a host of unpleasant side effects, which may include:

  • Nausea
  • Drowsiness
  • Slower respiratory rate
  • Unconsciousness
  • Constipation
  • Vomiting

The American Academy of Neurology is calling for revised narcotic prescription guidelines that would require patients who are taking at least 80-120 mg of a morphine equivalent per day to see a specialist.