From pain treatment to opioid dependence: A qualitative study of the environmental influence on codeine use in UK adults

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Objectives To investigate the views and experiences of people who use codeine in order to describe the ‘risk environment’ capable of producing and reducing harm.

Design This was a qualitative interview study. Psychological dependence on codeine was measured using the Severity of Dependence Scale. A cut-off score of 5 or higher indicates probable codeine dependence.

Setting Participants were recruited from an online survey and one residential rehabilitation service.

Participants 16 adults (13 women and 3 men) from the UK who had used codeine in the last 12 months other than as directed or as indicated. All participants began using codeine to treat physical pain. Mean age was 32.7 years (SD=10.1) and mean period of codeine use was 9.1 years (SD=7.6).

Results Participants’ experiences indicated that they became dependent on codeine as a result of various environmental factors present in a risk environment. Supporting environments to reduce risk included: medicine review of repeat prescribing of codeine, well-managed dose tapering to reduce codeine consumption, support from social structures in form of friends and online and access to addiction treatment. Environments capable of producing harm included: unsupervised and long-term codeine prescribing, poor access to non-pharmacological pain treatments, barriers to provision of risk education of codeine related harm and breakdown in structures to reduce the use of over the counter codeine other than as indicated.

Conclusion The study identified microenvironments and macroenvironments capable of producing dependence on codeine, including repeat prescribing and unsupervised use over a longer time period. The economic environment was important in its influence on the available resources for holistic pain therapy in primary care in order to offer alternative treatments to codeine. Overall, the goal is to create an environment that reduces risk of harm by promoting safe use of codeine for treatment of pain, while providing effective care for those developing withdrawal and dependence.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere025331
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number4
Early online date3 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - 3 Apr 2019


  • codeine
  • dependence
  • over-the-counter
  • prescribing
  • risk environment


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