Context: Pain often is inadequately treated due in part to reluctance about using opioid analgesics and fear that they will be abused. Although international and national expert groups have determined that opioid analgesics are essential for the relief of pain, little information has been available about the health consequences of the abuse of these drugs.
Objective: To evaluate the proportion of drug abuse related to opioid analgesics and the trends in medical use and abuse of 5 opioid analgesics used to treat severe pain: fentanyl, hydromorphone, meperidine, morphine, and oxycodone.
Design and setting: Retrospective survey of medical records from 1990 to 1996 stored in the databases of the Drug Abuse Warning Network (source of abuse data) and the Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (source of medical use data).
Patients: Nationally representative sample of hospital emergency department admissions resulting from drug abuse.
Main outcome measures: Medical use in grams and grams per 100,000 population and mentions of drug abuse by number and percentage of the population.
Results: From 1990 to 1996, there were increases in medical use of morphine (59%; 2.2 to 3.5 million g), fentanyl (1168%; 3263 to 41,371 g), oxycodone (23%; 1.6 to 2.0 million g), and hydromorphone (19%; 118,455 to 141,325 g), and a decrease in the medical use of meperidine (35%; 5.2 to 3.4 million g). During the same period, the total number of drug abuse mentions per year due to opioid analgesics increased from 32,430 to 34,563 (6.6%), although the proportion of mentions for opioid abuse relative to total drug abuse mentions decreased from 5.1% to 3.8%. Reports of abuse decreased for meperidine (39%; 1335 to 806), oxycodone (29%; 4526 to 3190), fentanyl (59%; 59 to 24), and hydromorphone (15%; 718 to 609), and increased for morphine (3%; 838 to 865).
Conclusions: The trend of increasing medical use of opioid analgesics to treat pain does not appear to contribute to increases in the health consequences of opioid analgesic abuse.