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Opioid painkillers emerging as safety threat for elderly

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The use of opioid painkillers is a burgeoning safety issue confronting elderly adults, a National Safety Council study finds.

Released Thursday, “Psychological and Physical Side Effects of Pain Medications” states that risk of death and unintentional injury is particularly high for elderly adults taking opioid painkillers. In addition to the well-known risks of addiction, use of opioid medications can cause physical side effects including gastrointestinal, respiratory, endocrine and cognitive impairment issues.

The study also found that adults over the age of 65 taking opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin are 68% more likely to be hospitalized and 87% more likely to die than those taking over-the-counter pain medications.

The effect of opioids is also evident in workers compensation claims, the study found, citing data that indicated that increasing opioid doses correlated with increasing length of disability for injured workers.

Accordingly, the paper, authored by Dr. Donald Teater, medical adviser for the National Safety Council, makes several recommendations to lower the risk of opioid abuse among elderly adults. These include asking medical providers to re-evaluate their prescribing habits and working with insurance companies to develop mechanisms to facilitate nondrug treatment of pain, including appropriate physical therapy and counseling.

“More Americans overdose on prescription painkillers than on heroin and cocaine combined,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, NSC president and CEO, said in a statement. “If doctors and their patients understand the risks and side effects, they can discuss safer, more effective options. Without an honest dialogue, we'll continue to see a cycle of addiction and overdose that has made opioid painkiller use a public health crisis.”