Prescriptions for opioids jump following co-proxamol ban

From the FMS Global News Desk of Jeanne Hambleton


By Lilian Anekwe – 17 March 2009

Opioid prescriptions have jumped during the withdrawal of co-proxamol, with GPs apparently struggling to find adequate means of pain control for some patients.

Prescriptions for morphine have risen by more than 40% and those for tramadol by two-thirds since co-proxamol use was first reduced in anticipation of the drug’s withdrawal.

An analysis for the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, obtained by Pulse under the Freedom of Information Act, reveals prescriptions for co-proxamol plummeted from 835 million in 2004 – the year prior to legislation on its withdrawal – to 121 million in 2007.

But over the same period, opiod prescriptions overall rose by 40%. Prescriptions for morphine rose by 44%, from 757,000 in 2004 to 1,093,000 in 2007, and tramadol prescriptions increased by 61%, from 3,130,000 to 5,036,000.

Co-proxamol was removed from the British National Formulary on 1 January last year, but the NHS Information Centre analysis shows GPs continued to prescribe co-proxamol to approximately 150,000 patients in England on a named-patient basis.

The MHRA downplayed the impact of the withdrawal and said the ageing population was to blame for increasing demand for analgesics. But the agency’s pharmacovigilance group concluded: ‘Opioids, especially tramadol, have followed an increasing trend and some patients may have been switched to this class of analgesic.’

Dr Adam Bajkowski, a GP in Wigan and president of the primary care rheumatology society, said the analysis suggested the MHRA’s argument that full-strength paracetamol was as effective as co-proxamol was flawed: ‘If GPs are having to switch patients to a stronger opioid, then it suggests the MHRA’s reasoning wasn’t really true.’

MHRA | 20 Mar 09
Your report on analgesic prescribing following the withdrawal of co-proxamol presented a distorted picture of the relevant information.

The withdrawal of co-proxamol in the UK has saved approximately 300 lives per year and there is no evidence that the death rate due to other analgesics is increasing. Prior to the withdrawal of co-proxamol, the MHRA issued guidance on pain management from the former Committee on Safety of Medicines (now known as the Commission on Human Medicines) to help doctors find the best options for individual patients, setting out a graduated range of possible therapeutic interventions.

Opioid prescriptions have not “jumped” during the three-year phased withdrawal of co-proxamol, as suggested in the article, and we do not have evidence that patients are being switched from co-proxamol to other opioids. Even though opioid prescriptions have increased steadily over the last 5 years they still make up a very small proportion of the overall prescriptions for painkillers.

There were increases in the numbers of prescriptions of paracetamol and of co-codamol around the time of the co-proxamol withdrawal. These increases were sufficiently large to suggest that patients may have been switched from co-proxamol. A research project to look at the analgesics that patients have been switched to will be started shortly.

Pulse, CMP Medica. All rights reserved.

EDITOR’S NOTE As someone who suffers with pain 24/7 from fibromyalgia, I managed very nicely with co-proxamol and some pain killing gel for the aches and pains until the withdrawal on December 31 2007. We were promised that those who really could not manage without it would be prescribed on a named patient basis. The Government and the Ministers failed to mention the under handed action of making co-proxamol an ‘illegal’ drug.

After I fought my own personal battle to reverse the withdrawal and tried to become a named patient, all unsuccessfully, I tried the alternatives which aggravated the old IBS. So I am left with nothing but pain. My GP will not prescribe co-proxamol for fear of litigation and I do not want to fill my body with drugs where the side effects for me are unbearable.

Why was co-proxamol not listed as a controlled drug. Those in need could then have received the pain relief they need so badly.

I imagine with the increase in these alternative medications mentioned in the article above, the cost of pain treatments has soared against what was a relatively cheap pain killer – £2.79 for 100 tablets – before the Government got involved. Is it any wonder the NHS is always short of funds and this is just a small example of failure to see the whole picture.

Why did GPs stop prescribing co-proxamol read this article from Pulse just after the withdrawal on 17 January 2008.

PCTs threaten GPs over co-proxamol

By Nigel Praities – 17 Jan 2008

PCTs are piling pressure on GPs to switch patients from co-proxamol to alternative medication, after the reimbursement price of the drug soared with loss of its licence.

In December 2007, co-proxamol was listed as Category M medicine with a reimbursement price of £2.79 for 100 tablets. From January 2008 it has been available as an unlicensed drug, but has been changed to Category C with a reimbursement price of £20.36 for 100 tablets – a sevenfold increase in price.

The price hike has galvanised trusts into action, with several already having contacted GPs to urge them to prescribe alternative analgesics, just weeks into the new year.

West Essex, Islington and West Hertfordshire PCTs are all planning, or have already, written to GPs about the price increase.

Norfolk PCT is planning a series of meetings and individual visits to reinforce the status and cost of co-proxamol to GPs. Other PCTs have indicated to Pulse that they are monitoring the situation in their area before taking action.

Dr Iain Gilchrist, a GP in Essex and treasurer of the Primary Care Rheumatology Society, who has taken all his patients on co-proxamol off the drug, said the price increase would put even more pressure on those GPs still prescribing it.

‘No doubt with GPs who still have patients on co-proxamol, the prescribing advisors will be wanting to have a little word in their ear. There is nothing like a price hike to concentrate the mind,’ Dr Gilchrist said.

Dr Gilchrist received an email in early January from a prescribing adviser at West Essex PCT, which said the price of co-proxamol had ‘rocketed’ and is a ‘very expensive option, as well as being unlicensed.’

PCTs are worried about the cost implications as many practices have struggled to find alternatives for many of their patients on the drug. A Pulse investigation in December revealed as many as 60,000 patients may still be on co-proxamol and 60% of practices reported that a hard core of their patients continued to take it.

The latest pressure from PCTs adds to the medico-legal headache surrounding co-proxamol. Patients can still be prescribed the drug on a named-patient basis, although GPs assume legal liability if they continue to prescribe the unlicensed drug.


Jan 2005 – MHRA announces withdrawal of co-proxamol
Oct 2006 – A Pulse survey reveals 70% of GPs demand the MHRA review its decision
Jan 2007 – MPs demand u-turn on withdrawal at special House of Commons debate
Oct 2007 – 60,000 patients remain on co-proxamol
Dec 2007 – Final withdrawal of co-proxamol
Jan 2008 – PCTs panic as price of co-proxamol soars


On 21 September 2006

One GP asked, “Is it time for a rethink on the co-proxamol ban?”

Co-proxamol is so accessible because it is the most useful analgesic in general practice and so a lot has been prescribed.

The academics who recommended banning it have made a kneejerk reaction without listening to those of us facing the realities at the coalface of medicine. All the alternatives, including paracetemol itself, are more toxic than co- proxamol. Tablet for tablet, they all have more paracetemol than co-proxamol. Dextropropoxyphene is not toxic to the liver. Paracetemol, co- codamol and co-dydramol are all readily available, more toxic and more expensive than co-proxamol, tramadol and so on.

Prescriptions will increase. More bleeds, more deaths and more drug interactions will occur. There will be more prescriptions for laxatives, more bowel obstructions, more hospitalisations. Drug costs will go up substantially and more successful suicides will occur.

I plead – think again. What do other GPs think?


EDITOR’S NOTE: Just this week a member of my own family haas been hospitalised for 36 hours. The hospital doctors blamed the medication (pain killers) prescribed for broken bones. He was lucky to be diagnosed quickly or the complication might have been fatal. Afraid to take more medication he is living with unbearable pain. If he had been taking co-proxamol I doubt this would have happened. I literally ‘lived’ on co-proxamol for almost five months when I broke my wrist and my pelvic bone in three places – without any side effects.

So what do you think? Are you ready to press your MP to ask questions in the House to have co-proxamol licensed as a controlled drug?

About jeanne hambleton

Journalist-wordsmith, former reporter, columnist, film critic, editor, Town Clerk and then fibromite and eventer with 5 conferences done and dusted. Interested in all health and well being issues, passionate about research to find a cure and cause for fibromyalgia. Member LinkedIn. Worked for 4 years with FMA UK as Regional Coordinator for SW and SE,and Chair for FMS SAS the Sussex and Surrey FM umbrella charity and Chair Folly Pogs Fibromyalgia Research UK - finding funding for our "cause for a cure" and President and co ordinator of National FM Conferences. Just finished last national annual Fibromyalgia Conference Weekend. This was another success with speakers from the States . Next year's conference in Chichester Park Hotel, West Sussex, will be April 24/27 2015 and bookings are coming in from those who raved about the event every year. I am very busy but happy to produce articles for publication. News Editor of FMS Global News on line but a bit behind due to conference. A workaholic beyond redemption! The future - who knows? Open to offers with payment. Versatile and looking for a regular paid column - you call the tune and I will play the pipes.
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