But John Oliver, perhaps the only guy who can make opioids funny (satire really is the very soul of wit), only covered the issue from a US perspective. The Wall Street Journal published an article last week about the global rise of tramadol abuse. I follow the opioid epidemic pretty closely, both in the US and abroad, but this phenomenon caught me off guard. Here are a few facts that pertain to our view of tramadol here in the US:
- Tramadol wasn't scheduled by the DEA until 2013. It's now a Schedule IV drug.
- There is a debate about whether or not it's addictive. The original German manufacturer, Grunenthal, maintains that the abuse potential is low. This clearly isn't the case (see below), but it's important to acknowledge the fact that many clinicians believe this is true.
- The debate can be traced back to early studies of tramadol. Like many new drugs, tramadol was originally tested on patients in injection form. Unlike most drugs, it turns out that the oral form of tramadol is more likely to lead to addiction than the injectable form. Thus, early studies indicate low abuse potential while today's practical experience indicates the opposite.
This drug is tearing communities apart in West Africa, the Middle East, and parts of Eastern Europe in much the same way that opioids and heroin have torn apart communities here in the US. The drug isn't tightly regulated by the UN or WHO (largely due to the lack of hard data on abuse and the conflicting science outlined above). India, the world's leading manufacturer of generic drugs, is cranking this stuff out and shipping into countries by the boatload, fueling a epidemic of addiction that has outstripped the ability of medical personnel and the law enforcement to combat it.
Even now, in the US, I've been in conversations with clinicians and claims professionals about whether or not tramadol is even an opioid. It's a synthetic drug, entirely man-made. And the symptoms of tramadol overdose do differ from a traditional opioids - rather than respiratory depression, tramadol overdose tends to lead to seizures and sudden collapse. So are there differences between tramadol and other opioids? Yes.
But let's straighten this out once and for all:
- Tramadol is an opioid painkiller
- Tramadol is addictive
- Tramadol overdose can lead to death
Keep an eye on the tramadol and don't fall for the "it's not as bad as the opioid" line.
On Twitter @PRIUM1