Painkillers appear to increase risk of deaths other than overdoses, according to new study of Medicaid patients in Tennessee

“Accidental overdoses aren’t the only deadly risk from using powerful prescription painkillers,” The Associated Press reports. “The drugs may also contribute to heart-related deaths and other fatalities, new research suggests.”

A study of of more than 45,000 Medicaid patients in Tennessee from 1999 to 2012 found that “those using opioid painkillers had a 64 percent higher risk of dying within six months of starting treatment compared to patients taking other prescription pain medicine,” AP reports. “Unintentional overdoses accounted for about 18 percent of the deaths among opioid users, versus 8 percent of the other patients.”

“As bad as people think the problem of opioid use is, it’s probably worse,” said Vanderbilt University professor Wayne Ray, the lead author of the study report. “They should be a last resort and particular care should be exercised for patients who are at cardiovascular risk.”

The report in the Journal of the American Medical Association noted that opioids can slow breathing and worsen the disrupted breathing associated with sleep apnea, which could lead to irregular heartbeats, heart attacks or sudden death.

The patients in the study “were prescribed drugs for chronic pain not caused by cancer but from other ailments including persistent backaches and arthritis,” AP reports. “Half received long-acting opioids including controlled-release oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl skin patches. . . . There were 185 deaths among opioid users, versus 87 among other patients. The researchers calculated that for every 145 patients on an opioid drug, there was one excess death versus deaths among those on other painkillers. The two groups were similar in age, medical conditions, risks for heart problems and other characteristics that could have contributed to the outcomes.”

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