There has been a significant increase in the number of emergency department visits related to the drug buprenorphine, a medicine used to treat opioid addiction. The number of emergency visits due to buprenorphine jumped from 3,161 in 2005 up to 30,135 in 2010, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Buprenorphine was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of opioid addiction in 2002, since then there has been an increasing number of doctors prescribing it to their patients.

In 2005 only 5,656 doctors were prescribing the medication to a total of 100,000 patients, five years later 18,582 doctors were prescribing buprenorphine to eight times as many patients, 800,000 in total.

Even though buprenorphine is an opioid itself, its effects are much weaker compared to other opioids such as heroin. The drug prevents addicts misusing opioids without any withdrawal effects.

Fifty percent of the visits in 2010 (15,778) were non-medically related, of which 59 percent involved the use of other pharmaceuticals such as benzodiazepine, pain relievers and illicit drugs. Men made up 66 percent of visits and patients between the ages 24 and 34 were the largest represented group of visits for non-medical use of the drug.

The authors said:

“Harmful consequences can occur even when buprenorphine is taken as prescribed by a physician. If used by an individual who is dependent on large doses of opioids, buprenorphine can block the effect of other opioids and bring on withdrawal symptoms.1 Although these symptoms are not usually severe, emergency medical care may be required to relieve symptoms.”

Buprenorphine can be dangerous when taken improperly, in 2010 there were a total of 2.3 million emergency visits because of health complications related to improper use of the drug. Federal government bodies have already implemented measures to try and lower the rate of buprenorphine abuse by providing physician education, as well as medication guidance.

SAMHSA has recently announced it plans to monitor the drug for abuse and ensure that doctors are fully aware of the potential addictive nature of it.

The study used data from the Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) reports which were carried out between 2005 and 2011. The reports published the complete incidence of drug-related morbidity and mortality.

Last week (01/25/2013) an FDA Panel voted 19 to 10 in favor of making drugs containing hydrocodone Schedule II controlled substances, together with other narcotic painkillers, including oxycodone. The FDA Drug Safety and Risk Management Advisory Committee commented of an alarming increase in addiction and overdose deaths related to these medications.

Earlier this month, Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City, announced new emergency room guidelines to prevent prescription painkiller abuse. He explained that from 2004 to 2010 the number of annual painkiller-related emergency department visits almost tripled.

Written by Joseph Nordqvist