Opium Use Found to Double Risk of Death


The opium poppy is the plant source for many of our most popular pain medications. Heroin, morphine and codeine are all derivatives of this plant. In some cultures, the raw sap from the plant is smoked to get high or as a treatment for pain. While smoking opium is less common in the US, it is still popular in Asia and parts of the Middle East. A study out of Iran, published in the British Medical Journal, reports that mortality is nearly doubled among opium users for a variety of disease conditions.

Interestingly, the deaths are not directly from overdose, but from other disease conditions. So, for example, someone who has asthma or a heart condition is twice as likely to die from it when they are also an opium smoker. The suspected reason is that the strong pain reducing properties of opium allows patients to ignore symptoms and hold off on needed treatment. But this may be too easy of an answer.

One of the mechanisms our bodies use to combat disease is pain. The link between marshalling our own body’s defense mechanisms and pain is not well understood. The drug also binds to other receptors as well, including those in smooth muscle tissue. Higher mortality may not be directly a response to the effects of the drug, but something else. The research only points out an association, not a cause.

For doctors in the US, this study is significant because of the way we use pain medications here. Although raw opium is not prescribed, the narcotics we use from the plant bind to the same receptors in the body. The question is then whether or not mortality for those on pain medications is partially due to the narcotic itself, instead of just the result of whatever condition the pain medicine is being prescribed for.

One troubling feature for understanding the risks is that we only prescribe pain medications to those who already have a serious medical condition – cancer or other extremely serious condition. Even trying to find a similar pattern among heroin users is problematic, since injecting heroin has its own set of risks, not the least of which is infection that can lead to amputation or AIDS.


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