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Be opioid aware

Medicines experts in Suffolk are encouraging people who take high-strength opioid painkillers to talk to their GP about reducing their dose to cut the risk of serious side effects and premature death.

The NHS Ipswich and East Suffolk and NHS West Suffolk clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are aiming to raise awareness of the impact which the long-term use of drugs such as morphine, fentanyl and high dose codeine can have - and are encouraging people to ask for help to reduce their need. There is little evidence that opioids are helpful in long-term pain management, with the risk of harm increasing significantly if a patient is taking more than 120mg morphine or its equivalent per day.

The CCGs’ campaign comes after figures showed more than 2,000 deaths in England and Wales during 2016 involved an opioid. At the same time use of the drugs has increased locally. GPs in east and west Suffolk issued 306,069 prescriptions for opioid-based painkillers in 2014 and this increased to 311,985 prescriptions in 2018.

Dr Andrew Hassan, Prescribing Lead and Governing Body member, NHS West Suffolk CCG, said: “Opioids are very good for treating acute pain in the short term which is why they are prescribed by GPs in the first place but they are often not beneficial for long-term use. There can be many serious side-effects, such as lethargy, memory problems, reduced sex drive and even premature death.

“It is very easy to become addicted to opioids, so reliance on the drug can happen quickly and without realising it. This results in you having to take higher doses of the drugs to obtain the same effect. Ironically, this can leave you in even more pain and greater discomfort than you would be if you stopped taking the medication altogether.”

Linda Lord, Chief Pharmacist, NHS West Suffolk CCG, said: “Clinical pharmacists are working with GPs and patients to reduce the prescribing of high doses of opioids. Many patients have already benefitted from a medication review and we are making some progress now to improve safety.” 

Dr David Egan, Prescribing Lead and Clinical Executive member, NHS Ipswich and East Suffolk CCG, said: “We encourage anyone who is taking these strong painkillers to seek advice from their GP to discuss reducing their dose safely. Many GP practices are pro-actively contacting patients asking them to attend a medicine review.

“It is important to reduce opioid use under medical supervision. If you suddenly stop taking them it can be dangerous to your health, so please don’t decide to go 'cold turkey' – speak with your GP first.

“You may well find that gradually stopping the medication actually helps your condition, and that you are in less pain without the opioids.  You may also feel more alert. In addition, your GP or pain specialist can also suggest other things which could help, such as mindfulness, meditation and exercises such as Thai chi and yoga."

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