Opioids are the most important drugs causing fatal poisonings. Determining whether an opioid death was poisoning may, however, be difficult even if involving appropriate toxicological laboratory investigation. Apart from heroin, little statistically significant data-analysis is available for interpretation of blood concentrations of opioids from various types of post-mortem cases. Tolerance, route of administration, and delay of death after drug administration all influence postmortem drug concentrations. In this thesis, quantitative blood concentration data extracted from the high-quality Finnish postmortem toxicology database was the investigative tool to overcome this problem. Opioid deaths typically involve drug abuse, and suspected drug-abuser deaths must, by Finnish law, undergo medico-legal examination. Medico-legal autopsy in these cases includes comprehensive drug screening and, based on its results, more specific drug quantification. This thesis combined concentration data stored in the postmortem toxicology database with information from death certificates issued by forensic pathologists to allow statistical comparisons between drug poisonings and other deaths, as well as between drug abusers and other users. Concentration data mainly involved drug concentrations in postmortem femoral blood, but drug concentrations in urine and parent drug/metabolite concentration ratios also allowed assessment of buprenorphine, codeine, and tramadol deaths. Opioid poisonings proved to be mainly unintentional polydrug poisonings, regularly involving benzodiazepines, gabapentinoids, and other psycholeptics. Buprenorphine and methadone blood concentrations in fatal poisonings remained within their therapeutic ranges, and these two opioids involved mostly abuse. Concentrations of the weak opioids tramadol and codeine were above their therapeutic ranges both in abuser cases and in fatal poisonings. Tramadol abuse was common but abuse of oxycodone, fentanyl, and codeine was rather low compared to their therapeutic use. Abuse of the gabapentinoids pregabalin and gabapentin was strongly associated with opioid abuse, and compared to gabapentin abuse, pregabalin abuse was proportionally more frequent. To prevent parenteral buprenorphine abuse, opioid maintenance treatment applied a combination product of buprenorphine-naloxone. This combination product is, however, abused as well, and monitoring its abuse is challenging. In this study, urine samples collected from living patients at different phases of opioid maintenance treatment supplemented the postmortem data. Based on the criteria established with these patients, combined with postmortem data and proper background information, a urine concentration limit was estimated for suspected parenteral abuse of the buprenorphine-naloxone product in postmortem cases. Deaths and fatal poisonings due to parenteral buprenorphine-naloxone abuse occurred frequently, and abuse of the combination product was proportionally even more fatal than was abuse of buprenorphine. The results of this study will assist in medico-legal cause-of-death investigations through providing quantitative reference concentrations for the interpretation of opioid-related deaths. Further, estimating the proportion attributable to prescription opioid abuse compared to that of other opioid use and creating abuser profiles for various opioids can promote public health through proper drug policy. In a clinical context, results may be helpful in evaluating possible drug abuse and compliance among prescription-drug users. Detecting abuse of these important yet addictive medications is vital in promoting welfare and drug safety.
|Place of Publication
|Published - 2015
|MoE publication type
|G5 Doctoral dissertation (article)
Fields of Science
- 319 Forensic science and other medical sciences
- 3124 Neurology and psychiatry