Seniors more likely to fall when taking opioids after hospital treatment: Study

PHOTO: Close-up of an opened prescription bottle, labelled as containing the opioid hydrocodone, as a number of its pills lie on a white surface, March 14, 2017. PlayTom Kelley/Getty Images
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Seniors recovering from trauma after being admitted to hospitals may be more likely to have falls when taking prescribed opioids, according to a new study.

While opioids are commonly used to manage acute pain, they can have harmful side effects, particularly for seniors. In this study, published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, those who had filled an opioid prescription within two weeks preceding their injuries were 2.4 times more likely to have suffered a fall.

"Taking opioids is like drinking alcohol" and there are side effects, according to lead study author Dr. Raoul Daoust. It’s important to remind people to use caution.

Elderly people who are prescribed opioids should be encouraged to take as few as they need and be careful when moving around at home, added Daoust, who is an emergency medicine researcher and clinician at Sacré-Coeur hospital in Montreal.

In this study, researchers looked at a decade of hospital records between 2004 and 2014, for almost 68,000 people older than 65 in Quebec, Canada, who were admitted to the hospital after a trauma -- a catch-all term that generally includes falls, car accidents and penetrating injuries.

Falls were the most common type of trauma in this patient population. The average age of the patients was about 81 years old and the majority, 69 percent, were women.

Opioids help the brain manage pain, but can lead to drowsiness and dizziness in some people, the authors said. This combination of symptoms, they added, may affect balance and make falls more likely, particularly in older people.

The authors attempted to rule-out other common causes of falls like alcoholism, weakness, recent cancer diagnosis, and use of other medications that cause abnormal balance.

While this study cannot clearly state that opioid use causes falls, the authors argue that there is a clear link between the two in people over the age of 65.

One other concerning finding of this study: Patients with recent opioid use had a slightly increased risk of in-hospital death. While the study did not find a specific reason, the authors suggest that opioid use could be an overall marker of fragility and poor health in an older population.

Opioids are potent narcotics that have the power to effectively treat severe pain when used appropriately. But doctors and patients alike should remain aware of their side effects and be particularly careful with their use, especially for seniors.

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