“WORRYINGLY high” numbers of patients are being prescribed opioid pain medications, addiction experts have warned, as they say thousands of people are becoming hooked on prescription drugs.

More than 16,160 people in Bolton were prescribed opiates in just a single month last year, it has been revealed, after Public Health England (PHE) released its first prescribed medicines review.

The data showed the number of people living in Bolton and the North West who have been prescribed five classes of drugs ­— anti-depressants, opioid pain medicines, gabapentinoids, benzodiazepines, and Z-drugs ­— in March 2018, as well as those who had been receiving medications for more than at least a year.

Thousands of people in the town have been put on each of these drugs, including 26,182 patients taking anti-depressants and 5,555 taking gabapentinoid neuropathic pain killers.

Michael Smith, chief officer of Bolton GP Federation, said: “Any prescriptions of any drugs are about relationships between GPs and their patients. It is about individual circumstances and individual times, not a culture thing.

“There are a couple of issues but we have done a number of things in the last few years including securing funding for pharmacists to work in each GP surgery, making sure that people are taking the right drugs in the right way. And that can also mean taking patients off drugs when they no longer need them.”

Across the North West over 1.4 million people were issued a prescription for one of the measured drug classifications.

Addiction treatment organisation UKAT said it is “concerned” that well over half of these patients ­— some 803,087 people ­— have been prescribed these “highly addictive” drugs for at least 12 months, and some for even longer.

Nuno Albuquerque, UKAT group treatment lead, said he it hopes the review will serve as a wake-up call, adding: “This report shows us that thousands of people living across the North West are crying out for help, and unfortunately, they’re being given plasters in the form of pills to solve their problems. Long-term use of these drugs, for the majority, will be ineffective because over time, the patient is likely to develop physical and psychological tolerance to the drug.”

While people may assume prescription drugs are less addictive than illegal substances and alcohol this is not always the case, UKAT warns.

Taking prescription medications that have psychoactive effects, such as opiates, anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications ­— especially when taken beyond doctors’ instructions ­— can see patients build up a tolerance and dependence.

Others become addicted without ever legally obtaining the medications, purchasing them on the street, black market, online or stealing them.

Addiction to any prescription drugs can cause physical damage to the body including the heart, liver and brain.

They can also interact and cause chemical changes in the brain resulting in depression, anxiety or psychosis such as paranoia or schizophrenia.

Other unintended consequences of prescription drug-taking can include suicidal behaviour, overdose, injuries, road traffic collisions and violent crime.

Medication prescribing has been increasing in the UK in recent years and the NHS has been accused of fuelling an “addiction crisis”, with opioid prescriptions up by 10 million between 2007 and 2017.

Many health groups also fear that the UK could be following the USA into a full blown opioid use crisis. A prescription opioid addiction epidemic has left the US in the grip of a “national crisis”, with more than 130 people dying every day after overdosing on opiates.

The US National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that prescription opioid misuse costs the country $78.5 billion a year, including for healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice.

In order to prevent the slide into an addiction emergency, health and drug experts are calling on GPs’ prescription practices to be revised.

Rosanna O’Connor, director of alcohol, drugs, tobacco and justice at PHE, said: “We know that GPs in some of the more deprived areas are under great pressure but, as this review highlights, more needs to be done to educate and support patients, as well as looking closely at prescribing practice and what alternative treatments are available locally.

“While the scale and nature of opioid prescribing does not reflect the so-called crisis in North America, the NHS needs to take action now to protect patients.

“Our recommendations have been developed with expert medical royal colleges, the NHS and patients that have experienced long-term problems.

“The practical package of measures will make a difference to help prevent problems arising and support those that are struggling on these medications.”

Mr Albuquerque, who has 20 years of addiction treatment experience, added: “These figures suggest to me that GPs here are stretched and overwhelmed and need better support and investment to be able to offer alternative treatment therapies like talking therapy, yoga, exercise, diet, and acupuncture to better tackle their patients problems, instead of simply issuing a repeat prescription.”

In Bolton several services do exist, led by non-medical staff, which work to support patients’ recovery and overall mental health, Mr Smith highlighted. These include social prescribing in each GP surgery under a primary care network which help people to find groups, activities and services in their area to ensure that “drugs are not the only therapy”.

For more information and support on prescription drug addiction visit http://bit.ly/2lDJ3Aa