Health

'Growing problem' of addiction to prescription drugs probed

woman holding pills Image copyright Xesai

Public Health England is launching a review into the "growing problem" of prescription drug addiction.

NHS data suggest one in every 11 patients in England is being prescribed medication that could be addictive, or difficult to come off.

This includes sedatives, painkillers and antidepressants.

PHE wants to avoid a situation like the one in the US, where there's been a massive increase in addiction to opioids.

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The review, which will take a year, will cover:

  • sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines and z-drugs (zolpidem and zopiclone)
  • painkillers called opioids, pregabalin and gabapentin (the latter two are also used to treat epilepsy)
  • antidepressants

While antidepressants are not addictive, some patients experience difficulties when they try to stop taking them.

Prescribing of "addictive medicines" - sedatives and painkillers - has increased 3% over five years, GP data for England suggests.

Public Health Minister Steve Brine said: "We know this is a huge problem in other countries like the United States - and we must absolutely make sure it doesn't become one here.

"While we are world-leading in offering free treatment for addiction, we cannot be complacent."

Director of drugs, alcohol and tobacco at PHE, Rosanna O'Connor, said: "It is of real concern that so many people find themselves dependent on or suffering withdrawal symptoms from prescribed medicines. Many will have sought help for a health problem only to find later on they have a further obstacle to overcome."

Experts say many prescriptions will be appropriate and people should not come off their medication without speaking to their doctor.

Image copyright BackyardProduction

Judy's story

Judy (not her real name), who is 43 and from Shropshire, was prescribed diazepam at the age of 30 to treat anxiety. She still takes it now.

"My whole life has been torn apart. It's an absolute medical disaster.

"My aim is to get off it, of course, but with each tiny drop in dose, the symptoms hit - and so hard - it's horrific."

Claire's story

Claire (not her real name), 43 and from West Yorkshire, has been taking antidepressants for most of her adult life. She was prescribed them at the age of 22 when she was experiencing a particularly difficult, stressful time.

Two decades on, she is still on the medication, although she wants to stop.

"Once you are on it, it's like a roundabout and nobody wants to help you get off. There's been very little support. I've been tempted to go cold turkey, which is not the best thing to do.

"You take the drugs and you feel a bit better and you don't have the motivation to change things. There's safety in the familiar.

"With different support in the beginning I might not be this medicated person."

The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, is calling for more support, including a helpline for patients who develop drug dependency.

A spokesman said: "Doctors see first-hand the need for greater action and support to tackle this problem."

Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "GPs will always prescribe in the best interests of the individual patient in front of us, taking into account the physical, psychological and social factors that might be impacting their health. We will only prescribe medication after a frank conversation with the patient about the potential risks and benefits, and we will also conduct regular medication reviews in partnership with patients.

"However, we know most patients would rather not be on long-term medication and where appropriate we will explore non-pharmacological treatments, but these - and this is particularly so for psychological therapies - are often scarce at community level.

"We hope that conclusions from this review will include highlighting the need for greater provision of and access to alternative treatments in the community - and for those patients who do become addicted to prescription medications to have easy, consistent, but also confidential access to appropriate, high-quality support."

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said antidepressants were potentially lifesaving for some people and patients should not be put off taking them in light of this review.

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