Opioid alternatives increase risk of suicide

Increased use of non-opioid drugs may be contributing to rising suicide rates.

Rick Docksai | Dec 02, 2019

As doctors increasingly prescribe fewer opioids and instead give their patients non-opioid alternatives for chronic pain, research suggests that the non-opioids have deadly side effects of their own. A study concludes that non-opioids Gabapentin and Baclofen are fueling rising rates of suicides.

The study, published in the journal Clinical Toxicology, examined data from the U.S. Poison Centers for the National Poison Data System, focusing on cases involving Gabapentin between 2014 and 2017 and cases involving Baclofen between 2013 and 2017. In these time periods, according to the researchers, suicide attempts rose 80.5% among patients taking Gabapentin and 43% among patients taking Baclofen.

Around 50 million adults--roughly 20% of the U.S. population--suffers from chronic pain. Opioid drugs can relieve pain, but doctors have been steering away from them in the face of surging rates of opioid overdose deaths in recent years. Gabapentin, an anti-epileptic drug that also treats nerve pain; and Baclofen, a muscle relaxant and antispasmodic drug that relieves muscle spasms, pain, and stiffness, have gone into increased use as alternatives.

Suicide rates in general have risen nationwide by 30% between 1999 and 2016, the study authors noted. They also pointed out that both drugs list sucidal thoughts as a potential side effect. The authors noted rising prescription rates for both drugs in recent years and cautioned doctors to weigh the potential dangers of these drugs, as well.

"Building a better understanding of the risks carried by these non-opioid medications is necessary so that providers and patients can make better-informed decisions about their role in pain managementand could also lead to the introduction of new public health measures," said Kimberly Reynolds, a University of Pittsburgh researcher who led the study.

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