Fourth wave of opioid (illicit drug) overdose deaths and diminishing access to prescription opioids and interventional techniques: Cause and effect


Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center


Background: In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, data has shown that age-adjusted overdose death rates involving synthetic opioids, psychostimulants, cocaine, and heroin have been increasing, including prescription opioid deaths, which were declining, but, recently, reversing the trends. Contrary to widely held perceptions, the problem of misuse, abuse, and diversion of prescription opioids has been the least of all the factors in recent years. Consequently, it is important to properly distinguish between the role of illicit and prescription opioids in the current opioid crisis. Multiple efforts have been based on consensus on administrative policies for certain harm reduction strategies for individuals actively using illicit drugs and reducing opioid prescriptions leading to curbing of medically needed opioids, which have been ineffective. While there is no denial that prescription opioids can be misused, abused, and diverted, the policies have oversimplified the issue by curbing prescription opioids and the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of severely limiting prescription opioids, without acknowledgement that opioids have legitimate uses for persons suffering from chronic pain. Similar to the opioid crisis, interventional pain management procedures have been affected by various policies being applied to reduce overuse, abuse, and finally utilization. Medical policies have been becoming more restrictive with reduction of access to certain procedures, with the pendulum swinging too far in the direction of limiting interventional techniques. Recent utilization assessments have shown a consistent decline for most interventional techniques, with a 18.7% decrease from 2019 to 2020. The causes for these dynamic changes are multifactorial likely including the misapplication of the 2016 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain, the relative ease of access to illicit synthetic opioids and more recently issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, recent publications have shown association of dose tapering with overdose or mental health crisis among patients prescribed long-term opioids. These findings are leading to the hypothesis that federal guidelines may inadvertently be contributing to an increase in overall opioid deaths and diminished access to interventional techniques. Together, these have resulted in a fourth wave of the opioid epidemic.

Methods: A narrative review.

Results: The fourth wave results from a confluence of multiple factors, including misapplication of CDC guidelines, the increased availability of illicit drugs, the COVID-19 pandemic, and policies reducing access to interventional procedures. The CDC guidelines and subsequent regulatory atmosphere have led to aggressive tapering up to and including, at times, the overall reduction or stoppage of opioid prescriptions. Forced tapering has been linked to an increase of 69% for overdoses and 130% for mental health crisis. The data thus suggests that the diminution in access to opioid prescriptions may be occurring simultaneously with an increase in illicit narcotic use.Combined with CDC guidelines, the curbing of opioid prescriptions to medically needed individuals, among non-opioid treatments, interventional techniques have been affected with declining utilization rates and medical policies reducing access to such modalities.

Conclusion: The opioid overdose waves over the past three decades have resulted from different etiologies. Wave one was associated with prescription opioid overdose deaths and wave two with the rise in heroin and overdose deaths from 1999 to 2013. Wave three was associated with a rise in synthetic opioid overdose deaths. Sadly, wave four continues to escalate with increasing number of deaths as a confluence of factors including the CDC guidelines, the COVID pandemic, increased availability of illicit synthetic opioids and the reduction of access to interventional techniques, which leads patients to seek remedies on their own.

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