Opioid addiction may follow head and neck cancer treatment

Opioid addiction may follow head and neck cancer treatment

In a new study, researchers found that opioid use and misuse may follow treatment for head and neck cancer.

The study was done by a team from the University of Colorado Cancer Center.

Cancer patients are often prescribed pain medications, for example during recovery from surgical procedures.

However, for many cancer patients, the use of opioid pain medications during treatment can be a gateway to misuse or addiction once treatment ends.

Now with cancer patients living longer than ever before, protecting quality of life in the months, years, or decades after treatment is becoming increasingly important, including guarding against the risk of opioid addiction.

To discover the extent of opioid use and abuse in head and neck cancer patients, the team searched the SEER/Medicare database to identify 976 patients treated between 2008 and 2011 for oral or oropharynx cancer.

In all, 811 of these patients received prescriptions for opioid pain medications during treatment.

Three months after treatment ended, 150 of these patients continued to have active opioid prescriptions.

Six months after treatment, 68 patients or 7 percent of the total population continued to use opioid pain medication.

The team suggests that people shouldn’t need opioids at the six-month point. They hope that we can use this data to help patients manage pain better.

In fact, the team suggests that because younger patients in this (and other) studies were at greater risk for opioid misuse, and the SEER/Medicare database is heavily skewed to include data from older patients, the true percent of opioid misuse in the overall head and neck cancer patient population is likely higher than the current study suggests.

Additional risk factors for continued opioid use included opioid prescription prior to cancer treatment, and a history of smoking and/or alcohol use.

Interestingly, patients prescribed oxycodone as their first opiate were less likely to continue use at 3 and 6 months after treatment, than patients initially prescribed hydrocodone or other opiates including fentanyl, hydromorphone, meperidine hydrochloride, morphine, nalbuphine, or tramadol.

The researchers think that maybe patients know the word ‘oxycodone’ and are more aware of the potential for addiction than they might be if prescribed a less well-known drug or one they consider less dangerous like hydrocodone.

The group sees the current study as a way to understand the ecosystem of pain control and opioid dependence in head and neck cancer patients, with the goal of working to change doctors’ strategies for pain control.

If a patient needed opioids for pain, doctors wouldn’t keep them away, but especially if they have risk factors, doctors need to counsel them more about the risks of addiction and misuse, and keep an eye on it.

The first author is Jessica McDermott, MD, researcher at CU Cancer Center and assistant professor at the CU School of Medicine.

The findings are published in the journal Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

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