Opioid and Benzodiazepine Substitutes: Impact on Drug Overdose Mortality in Medicare Population



      Gabapentinoids (GABAs) and serotonergic drugs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors [SSRIs]/serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors [SNRIs]) are increasingly being prescribed as potential substitutes to opioids and benzodiazepines (benzos), respectively, to treat co-occurring pain and anxiety disorders. The toxicities of these drug classes and their combinations are not well understood.


      We conducted a matched case-control study using 2013-2016 Medicare files linked to the National Death Index. Cases were enrollees who died from drug overdose. Controls were enrollees who died from other causes. Cases and controls were matched on patient characteristics and prior chronic conditions. Possession of any opioids, GABAs, benzos, and SSRIs/SNRIs in the month prior to death was defined as drug use. Combination drug use was defined as possessing at least 2 types of these prescriptions for an overlapping period of at least 7 days in the month prior to death.


      Among 4323 matches, benzo possession was associated with twice the risk for drug overdose death in cases vs controls. Compared with opioid-benzo co-prescribing, combinations involving SSRIs/SNRIs and opioids (or GABAs) were associated with decreased risk (adjusted odds ratio 0.55; 95% confidence interval, 0.44-0.69 for opioids and SSRIs/SNRIs; adjusted odds ratio 0.59; 95% confidence interval, 0.44-0.79 for GABAs and SSRIs/SNRIs). Fatal drug overdose risk was similar in users of GABA-opioid, GABA-benzo, and opioid-benzo combinations.


      Benzodiazepines, prescribed alone or in combination, were associated with an increased risk of drug overdose death. SSRIs/SNRIs were associated with lower risk of overdose death vs benzodiazepines. GABAs were not associated with decreased risk compared with opioids, raising concerns for GABAs’ perceived relative safety.


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