Morphine patches are supposed to reduce use of painkillers, and provide more control over their use in chronic pain conditions. But researchers at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) and St. Olavs Hospital in Trondheim have found otherwise.
The sales of new morphine patches have grown explosively in Norway since they were first introduced to the market in 2005. But researchers at NTNU and St. Olavs Hospital have found this development worrying, because their research shows that these types of plasters are often used incorrectly, or based on the wrong assumptions. The consequences can create drug dependency problems.
"The reason for this incorrect usage is that there is not enough information out there, and a lack of expertise in individuals who are writing prescriptions," says Professor Petter Borchgrevink, head of the Norwegian National Centre for Complex Disorders.
Should reduce the risk
The patch works in the same manner as a nicotine patch, with the clear difference that a nicotine patch is used to reduce the craving for cigarettes, while a morphine patch is used to reduce pain. But both provide small, steady doses of their active ingredients over a longer time period.
This method of medication is best for patients who need low doses of pain-relieving medicine. In a perfect world, it makes sense: the medication could be more controlled, drug consumption could be reduced, and the risk of dependence should therefore be less.
Now it turns out that incorrect use of the patches can make problems worse, so that the effect is the opposite of what was intended.
An addition, not a substitute
The patch came onto the Norwegian market in 2005. It was the first morphine-like drug marketed for chronic pain that is not caused by cancer. But the danger of misuse was great, and Borchgrevink and Professor Stein Kaasa at NTNU decided to follow up on whether the patches were being used correctly.
The pair started a research project in cooperation with the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Now the conclusions are clear: Instead of being substituted for another habit-forming medication, the morphine patches were often being given in addition to other drugs.
"This increases the health burden and the risk of addiction, "says Borchgrevink.
He adds that this is especially true for a large group of chronic pain patients that did not use morphine-based medications before given the patch.
Substance abuse a major risk
"For some patients, it would be appropriate to give morphine-like drugs for strong chronic pain", says Kaasa, who is a specialist in pain relief medicine and director of NTNU's research group on cancer and palliation.