MONDAY, Dec. 13 (HealthDay News) -- Two new studies suggest that Medicare patients who take opioid painkillers such as codeine, Vicodin or Oxycontin face higher health risks, including death, heart problems or fractures, compared to those taking non-opioid analgesics.
However, it's not clear if the painkillers are directly responsible for the differences in risk, experts said, and other factors could play a role. And one pain specialist who's familiar with the findings said they don't reflect the experiences of doctors who've prescribed the drugs.
In one study, researchers examined a database of Medicare recipients in two states who were prescribed one of five kinds of opiod painkillers from 1996-2005. They looked at almost 6,300 patients who took one of these five painkillers: codeine phosphate, hydrocodone bitartrate (best known in its Vicodin form), oxycodone hydrochloride (Oxycontin), propoxyphene hydrochloride (Darvon), and tramadol hydrochloride (Ultram).
Those who took codeine were 1.6 times more likely to have suffered from cardiovascular problems after 180 days, while patients on hydrocodone seemed to be at higher risk of fractures than those who took tramadol and propoxyphene.
After 30 days, those who took oxycodone were 2.4 times more likely to die than those taking hydrocodone, and codeine users were twice as likely to die, although the number of deaths was small.
The study authors caution that their findings are surprising in some ways and need to be confirmed by further research.
Commenting on the study, Dr. Russell K. Portenoy, chairman of the department of pain medicine and palliative care at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City, said that the findings are of limited value because many other factors could explain the differences between the drugs, such as how fast physicians ramped up the doses of patients.
"I would suggest that readers note this as an observation and
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