mixing-opioidDespite the risks associated with mixing opioid painkillers with other drugs, a new study finds that almost 60 percent of patients who are prescribed opioid painkillers to treat long-term conditions are also being prescribed other drugs – like anti-anxiety drugs or muscle relaxants, The New York Times reports. The pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts conducted the study, “A Nation In Pain“, which looked at the pharmacy claims of 6.8 million Americans who filled at least one prescription for an opioid between 2009 and 2013.

Combining an opioid painkiller with other drugs could slow down the respiratory system.

“Not only are more people using these medications chronically, they are using them at higher doses than we would necessarily expect,” said Dr. Glen Stettin, a senior vice president at Express Scripts. “And they are using them in combinations for which there isn’t a lot of clinical justification.”

The study found that:

  • About 8 percent of patients were taking opioid, anti-anxiety and muscle relaxant drugs at the same time.
  • 27 percent of patients were taking more than one opioid at a time.
  • Two-thirds were taking a combination of drugs prescribed by two or more doctors.
  • Almost 40 percent filled their prescriptions at more than one pharmacy.

Researchers reported that patients who are taking opioid painkillers are using more of them for longer periods. Almost half of patients who took opioids for more than a month, were still on the drugs three years later, according to the article.

“There could be instances when prescribing these combinations of drugs is appropriate, but not at this scale. The fact that the majority of these patients are being treated by multiple physicians and pharmacies signals a communication breakdown that leads to dangerous use,” Lynne Nowak, MD, Medical Director at Express Scripts, said in a news release. “Government- and insurer-run drug monitoring programs can help prevent these possibly life-threatening scenarios, but unfortunately they are underused and vary by state. As more people gain access to health coverage, this problem will worsen if the country doesn’t use every tool at its disposal to ensure the safe use of these medications.”