The number of patients taking powerful opioid painkillers along with anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines increased significantly from 2001 to 2013, according to a study recently published in the British Medical Journal.
The findings come just months after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that it was adding boxed warnings to the safety labels of both drugs as well as prescription cough medicines regarding serious side effects such as slowed or difficult breathing and deaths when the drugs are combined. Boxed warnings, also called black box warnings, are the strongest warning the FDA can give and are reserved for medications and medical devices that call attention to serious and life threatening risks.
Opioids include medications such as morphine, hydrocodone, OxyContin, and fentanyl. Benzodiazepines, or benzos, include drugs such as Xanax Klonopin, and Valium.
The study, conducted by Eric Sun, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology, perioperative, and pain medicine at Stanford University in California, and colleagues, involved data on more than 315,000 privately insured patients aged 18 to 64 who were prescribed an opioid between 2001 and 2013.
Researchers found that in 2001, 9 percent of patients prescribed opioids also had a prescription for benzos. That number increased to 17 percent by 2013. They also noted that compared to patients prescribed opioids only, patients prescribed both meds were more likely to be treated at emergency departments or admitted to the hospital for opioid overdose.
“Elimination of the concurrent use of benzodiazepines and opioids could reduce the population risk of an emergency room visit or inpatient admission for opioid overdose by 15 percent,” the study’s authors wrote. “From a clinical perspective, providers should exercise caution in prescribing opioids for patients who are already using benzodiazepines (or vice versa), even in a non-chronic setting.”