Chronic use of prescription narcotic painkillers boosts the risk of major depression, new research shows.
Opioid analgesics — such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin — have long been known to reduce pain, but a Saint Louis University researcher has found individuals using such medications for six months or longer are far more likely to develop depression.
The study, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine
, is based on an analysis of about 50,000 veterans' medical records. According to the findings, patients who started and remained on opioids for 180 days or longer were at a 53 percent increased risk of developing a new episode of depression. Those on such drugs for 90-180 days were at a 25 percent increased risk, compared to patients who never took them for longer than 1-89 days.
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"These findings suggest that the longer one is exposed to opioid analgesics, the greater is their risk of developing depression," said Jeffrey Scherrer, associate professor of family and community medicine at Saint Louis University and principle investigator of the study.
"Opioids have long been known to allay pain and suffering, but reports of adverse effects are abundant and continue to emerge."
Scherrer said it is unclear how opioids contribute to the development of depression in a patient, but suggested such drugs may reset the brain's 'reward pathway' to a higher level and thus elevate the threshold for a person's ability to experience pleasure from natural rewards such as a food.
"Preliminary evidence suggests that if you can keep your daily dose low, you may be at lower risk for depression," he added.
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