For the first time, research has compared the safety of some of the most commonly used painkillers. And the drugs that raised the biggest questions? Opioids -- the regularly prescribed class of painkillers that include Vicodin and OxyContin.
In two new reports published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston found that opioid users experienced higher rates of serious problems than patients taking other types of painkillers, such as coxibs or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs.
"In the past decade, people have increased their opioid use, and I think that's partly based on the fact that other drugs were [found to be] dangerous, but no one has done an analysis of opioids," said Dr. Daniel Solomon, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and lead author of the study. "But now opioids aren't looking so good either."
The use of hydrocodone, brand name Vicodin, and oxycodone, brand name OxyContin, nearly doubled between 2001 to 2006. Doctors said a major reason for the spike came from noncancer patients taking the painkiller.
One in five American adults received a painkiller prescription in 2006, which translates to more than 230 million total prescription purchases.
And last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the number of fatal opioid poisonings more than tripled from 4,000 to 13,800 deaths between 1999 and 2006.
Before this study, almost no information existed on the comparative safety of opioids.
"Not that our study is the final word, but it can be a means to start a discussion of benefits and risks of some of the most commonly used drugs," said Solomon.
In the first report, researchers collected Medicare data between the years 1996 and 2005. The data included information from more than 31,000 older Americans who had been prescribed an NSAID, coxib or opioid.
Opioid users experienced higher rates of cardiovascular problems and fractures than patients taking other types of painkillers.
In the second report, the authors compared the rates of serious problems occurring after 30 and 180 days among patients taking one of five opioids: codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, propoxyphene and tramadol. They found that patients taking codeine or oxycodone were about twice as likely to die from any cause compared with patients taking hydrocodone (Vicodin), an opioid similar to oxycodone and stronger than codeine.
"I am not surprised that oxycodone carries a higher risk of death than hydrocodone," said Dr. Doris Cope, director of University of Pittsburgh's Pain Medicine Program. "From a clinical perspective, oxycodone rather than hydrocodone is more often prescribed for patients [with] more extensive pathology and pain who are thus more likely to sustain life-threatening illnesses."
In addition, patients taking codeine for at least three months were found to have a 62 percent increased risk of cardiovascular problems compared with those taking hydrocodone.
"I will actively discourage codeine usage in my patients at risk for cardiovascular disease," continued Cope. "It is an older analgesic, which is less effective than other medications but as equally addictive when compared with stronger pain relievers."