Propofol (Diprivan) is used to put patients to sleep for surgery and to sedate them for other procedures. It is widely used because it takes effect rapidly and offers patients a quick recovery time, with fewer side effects than other anesthetics.
It was among the mix of drugs that contributed to singer Michael Jackson's death in 2009, the Los Angeles County coroner concluded.
Researchers analysed data from an addiction center specialising in substance abuse problems among health care professionals and identified 22 health care workers who were treated for propofol abuse between 1990 and 2010.
A steady increase in propofol abuse
During that period, there was a steady increase in the number of health care professionals treated for propofol abuse, which currently accounts for 1.6% of all cases of health care professionals treated for addiction, the study authors said.
The patients identified in the study included 13 doctors, eight nurses and one dentist. Most of the doctors and all of the nurses were anesthesia providers and had easy access to propofol, according to the findings in the April issue of the Journal of Addiction Medicine.
The propofol abusers were more likely to be women, and many of the patients had depression and a history of childhood sexual or physical abuse. Most of the patients also had a family history of substance abuse, and a higher-than-expected number had family members with schizophrenia, the investigators found.
Patients used propofol to help them sleep
Many of the patients started using propofol to help them sleep, but they quickly became addicted to the drug. Most sought addiction treatment within a few months of starting to abuse the drug, while five patients entered treatment after a single propofol binge.
About half began treatment after dramatic events such as car crashes or other injuries. Some suffered injuries when they passed out immediately after injecting themselves with propofol. Five were admitted to treatment after being discovered unconscious, the researchers noted in a journal news release.
"Propofol addiction is a virulent and debilitating form of substance dependence" with a "rapid downhill course," wrote Dr Paul Earley and Dr Torin Finver of Georgia Health Professionals Program Inc., in Atlanta.
Some of the patient characteristics identified in this study - including a history of depression and childhood abuse, as well as certain injury patterns - could be used to identify and treat propofol abuse in health care professionals, the researchers suggested.
The American Society of Anesthesiologists has more about propofol.