Episode #15: How easy is it to get addicted to opioids?

June 10, 2017, 11:17 pm




As has been well reported in medical papers, government studies and popular media, rates of overdose deaths from opioids have been increasing steadily over the last several decades. A recent article in the New York Times reported that there were likely more than 59,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016, an estimated 19% increase over the number in 2015. The total for 2017 is likely to be even higher.


Many deaths have been associated with prescription opioid analgesics, or have occurred among patients who became addicted to prescription opioid analgesics and then went on to use cheaper and more available forms such as heroin. As I detailed in my 2013 Emergency Medicine News column “The Dark Truth Behind Pain as the Fifth Vital Sign,” the trend towards increased use of opioid analgesics really took off in the 1990s, and was encouraged by some leading pain “specialists” who insisted that studies demonstrated that opioids were virtually never addictive when used to treat chronic pain. The sole basis for this claim was a one paragraph, five-sentence letter to the New England Journal of Medicine (often referred to as the Porter-Jick “study”) that described, not outpatients treated for chronic pain, but hospitalized in-patients. A recent excellent short paper by Zhang et al points out that this one letter was subsequently cited 608 times, often uncritically and often as evidence that long-term use of opioids for pain was associated with only minimal risk of addiction. Zhang et al is a must-read.


Rudd et al is loaded with statistics that illustrate the extent and reach of the opioid crisis in the United States. For example, they show that the relative increase in opioid deaths from 2010 to 2015 was 33%. In 2015, the number of overdose deaths in the U.S. — 52,400 — exceeded those from either motor vehicle accidents or firearms.


Shah et al searched records in a large managed care insurance database to identify adult patients who received at least one prescription for an opioid between 2006 and 2015 and were previously opiate naïve (no opioid prescription for the preceding 6 months before the index prescription.) Exclusion criteria included cancer (except for non-melanoma skin cancer) and history of substance abuse disorder.


The authors found that receiving the initial opioid prescription carried a high risk of long-term use. Six percent of patients prescribed at least one day of opioid medication were still receiving prescriptions for opioids 1 year later. Risk of continued use at one year markedly increased if the first use was for more than 8 days (13.5%) and for more than 31 days (30%.)


Brummett et al. found that opioid-naïve patients prescribed an opioid analgesic for post-operative pain from major or minor surgery had an incidence of persistent opiate use — evidenced by a script for opioid medication filled 90-180 days after surgery — of 6.0 – 6.5%. They conclude: “New persistent opioid use represents a common but previously underappreciated surgical complication . . .”



QUIZZLER: Last episode we discussed the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un. According to reports, the agent used in that killing was the nerve agent VX. We mentioned that the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan had also used VX as a murder weapon in the 1990s. Aum Shinrikyo was led by a half-blind former yoga instructor named Shoko Asahara. The Quizzler question was: According to Au Shinrikyo cult protocol, how were followers required to great Shoko Asahara when they came into his presence? The answer: they greeted the guru by kissing his big toe.


There were a number of correct answers submitted. The winner, picked at random, was Francis Manuel. Congratulations!


The new Quizzler is revealed at the end of this episode’s podcast. Answers can be submitted to: toxtrivia@gmail.com. Deadline for submissions is midnight Chicago time, Sunday June 25. The winner’s name will be selected at random from among all those submitting correct responses. The prize again will be a $25 Amazon gift certificate, and a choice of either a TPR tee shirt or hoodie. Good luck!








Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics. Porter J, Jick H. N Engl J Med 1980;302:123


The One-Paragraph Letter from 1980 That Fueled the Opioid Crisis. Zhang S. The Atlantic Jun 2, 2017


A 1980 Letter on the Risk of Opioid Addiction. Leung PTM et al. N Engl J Med 2017;376:2194-5.


Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2010-2015, Rudd RA et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2016 Dec 30;65:1445-1452.


Characteristics of Initial Prescription Episodes and Likelihood of Long-Term Opioid Use — United States, 2006 – 2015. Shah A et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 20017 Mar 17;66:265-269.


Opioid-Prescribing Patterns of Emergency Physicians and Risk of Long-Term Use. Barnett ML et al. N Engl J Med 2017 Feb 16;376:663-673.


New Persistent Opioid Use After Minor and Major Surgical Procedures in US Adults. Brummett CM et al. JAMA Surgery 2017 Apr 12 [Epub Ahead of Print]








  1. milkshaken Says:

    Aum Shinrikyo cult used crude mixture of organophosphates containing sarin, not VX agent, in the Tokyo subway attack of 1995

    The cult was also stockpiling drugs and other weapons including attempts at bioweapons but I don’t think they had VX

  2. Grant Says:

    As a paramedic, I am curious if you have come across any literature regarding rates of continued opiate use after administration by prehospital providers. What kind of effect might we have on the current state of the opioid “epidemic?”
    I would greatly appreciate hearing more podcasts touching on prehospital aspects as well. Thanks!

  3. Cristian Says:

    59,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016? That’s really high for opioids!
    Also awesome overall statistics on how easy it can be to get addicted to opioids. Thanks.

  4. Leon Gussow Says:


    The Tokyo subway attack in 1995 did use home-brewed sarin. Less well known is that Aum Shinrikyo used VX in several assassination attempts. More information on this can be found here.


    I am not aware of any data on continued opiate use after prehospital administration. My hunch is that such use is not a major problem, if it’s a problem at all.


    Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately, there is no indication that the epidemic of opioid-related deaths is decreasing. A recent report in MMWR indicated that opioid-prescribing rates remain alarmingly high.