Experts say the opioid epidemic is reaching Australia.

Nearly two million Australian adults begin taking prescription opioids each year, and around 2.6 per cent of them become long-term users, according to local researchers.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reports that deaths involving opioids have nearly doubled in the last 10 years in Australia.

Overdose from prescription medicines has already overtaken road deaths and illicit drug overdose as a cause of death in Australia.

It comes at a time when the use of prescription opioids in the USA is routinely described as a “public-health crisis” and an “epidemic”, with more than 130 people dying every day from opioid-related drug overdoses in 2016 and 2017.

The new research not only reveals just how many Australians are being dispensed opioids, it also finds that 2.6 per cent of them – or around 50,000 people – become long term users over a year.

Also concerning - an increasing proportion of patients are being started on stronger opioids.

According to Monash University researcher Samanta Lalic, this is where the real cause for concern lies, because both long-term use and the use of strong opioids are associated with a range of adverse health outcomes.

In addition to overdose deaths, high-dose opioid use has been associated with falls, fractures, hospitalisations and motor vehicle accidents.

“Opioids do have an important role in managing cancer pain and acute non-cancer pain. However, their use remains less well established for chronic – i.e. long-term – non-cancer pain,” Ms Lalic said.

“For the treatment of chronic pain, we need to change prescribing culture and raise the level of awareness of other treatment options among patients. The goal of care, treatment expectations and intended duration should be agreed upon by patients and prescribers prior to opioid initiation.

“In many cases the safest and most effective way to treat chronic pain will involve a combination of therapies, including exercise, physiotherapy and non-opioid painkillers.”

The Therapeutic Goods Administration is looking at new strategies to address high rates of opioid prescribing.