'SUPER-strength' painkillers linked to addiction were prescribed to tens of thousands of Oxfordshire patients last year.

New Public Health England figures reveal that in 2017-18, 51,474 adults within the Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) received at least one prescription for opioid painkillers, constituting 10 per cent of the area's adult population.

Health secretary Matt Hancock has warned that the national figures are at 'crisis' level, while an Oxford addiction expert has said a 'steady flow' of people are falling into the 'trap' of dependency.

Mr Hancock said: "The disturbing findings of the report, especially that one in eight adults in England are taking super-strength, addictive opioid painkillers, many for extended periods of time, prove to me that we are in the grip of an over-medication crisis."

The figures excluded people who were prescribed opioid painkillers for cancer pain.

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As of March 2018, 18,760 people in Oxfordshire were on an opioid prescription, of which 8,549 were estimated to have been in receipt of theirs for at least 12 months.

Andy Symons, senior operations manager at Oxford-based Turning Point, said the addiction treatment service does see people with painkiller dependency.

He said: "We get a steady flow of people being referred from their GP.

"You're working with someone who is used to getting what they want from their GP, and they can be as tricky as those who are addicted to illicit [drugs] - their addiction is just as real, and there are people who will almost do anything just to keep their medication.

"Quite often it's taken for back pain or it's over-the-counter medication like codeine co-codamol, and for whatever reason they've stayed on it for a long time.

"With these types of painkillers, like any other drug, if people suddenly stop taking it they can get side effects.

"It can be incredibly difficult once you've fallen into that trap. They just want to be prescribed it and left on it."

Mr Symons said some people go from pharmacy to pharmacy stockpiling over-the-counter opioid painkillers, and said Turning Point can assist with detoxing and offering support.

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He was positive that more is being done to raise awareness of the issue, adding: "Through no fault of anyone, it's easy to give a repeat prescription. GPs are more aware of [addiction] now, and can see people getting very anxious that their medication might stop."

The report found that 5.6 million people across England were prescribed opioids in 2017-18.

It also examined prescribing rates for antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs and sleeping pills.

In Oxfordshire, 83,463 people received a prescription for antidepressants in 2017-18 – 16 per cent of the adult population.

Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chairwoman of the Royal College of GPs, said: "This study indicates the severe lack of alternatives to drug therapies for many conditions, and where effective alternatives are known and exist, inadequate and unequal access to them across the country.

"There are wide-ranging and complex issues surrounding the prescribing of opioids and antidepressants.

"GPs don't want to prescribe medication long term unless it is essential, but there will always be some patients for whom medication is the only thing that helps with distressing conditions, such as chronic pain, depression and anxiety."

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The report did state that prescriptions for opioid pain medicines are decreasing 'after rising for many years,' but that there are 'large variations in standardised rates of prescribing at the level of CCGs'.

Compared to other areas, the NHS table categorised opioid prescriptions in Oxfordshire as 'significantly below the expected rate.'

When all 195 CCGs in the country were ranked, on a scale of 1 (the highest proportion of opioid prescriptions) and 195 (the lowest), Oxfordshire was among the best, at 143.

Health secretary Mr Hancock said he did not want painkiller dependency in England to escalate to the prevalence seen in America.

He said: "What is alarming is that in many cases, these medicines are unlikely to be working effectively due to over-use.

"The entire healthcare system will now be involved in making sure we put an end to this, once and for all."

Mr Symons similarly said that painkillers had been doled out 'willy-nilly' in the US and was encouraged that action is being taken to avoid that here.

  • If you are concerned about addiction, Turning Point has hubs around the county and can be contacted on 01865 261690, or visit turning-point.co.uk