Nearly one in three older cancer patients do not use narcotic painkillers even though they are in severe pain, according to a Canadian study.
Researchers studied two years of data involving over 24,000 cancer patients in Ontario who were over age 65. One third of those reporting severe pain did not fill a prescription they were given for opioids such as morphine, oxycodone and fentanyl. The oldest patients and women were found to be least likely to use opioids. People over age 85, for example, were 30 percent less likely to take opioids for pain than patients between 64 and 74 years old. Women in the study were 14 percent less likely to take opioids than men.
The study is being published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.
It’s not clear why so many prescriptions are going unfilled by elderly cancer patients. Some older patients may be concerned about addiction, drowsiness, falling down and other side effects. There could also be a stigma associated with opioid use. OxyContin was recently taken off the market in Canada because of widespread abuse.
There is some evidence that the fear of addiction is justified. Another recent study out of Canada found that elderly patients who were prescribed painkillers after surgery were at greater risk of addiction and other health problems related to opioid use. Over 10 percent of the patients were long-term opioid users a year after their surgery.
Canada is the world’s second largest per capita consumer of oxycodone after the United States. In the U.S. nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses are caused by opioid painkillers. The drugs were involved in 14,800 overdose deaths in 2008, more than cocaine and heroin combined according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.