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Prescription drugs
March 18, 2016

The Surprising Truth Behind America’s Drug Addiction Epidemic: How What You Don’t Know About Prescription Painkillers Can Hurt You

Prescription drugsIt used to be assumed that pain was an inescapable part of the human condition. “Who except the gods can live without pain?” the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus once wrote.

That assumption may be changing—at least for Americans. In an era when medications for relieving pain have never been more abundant, and when Americans’ consumption of doctor-prescribed painkillers remains at an all-time high, pain no longer seems inevitable. Or, at least that’s the message that patients with chronic pain conditions want to hear from their doctors, who are often happy to oblige.

An Rx for chronic pain, in the form of an opioid pain reliever like oxycodone or hydrocodone, is still easy to write. Because it’s legal and doctor-prescribed, it’s also easy to procure and still easier to presume safer than illicit drugs like heroin.

But these very medicines regularly prescribed for moderate to severe pain are actually hurting many patients and their loved ones, by triggering addictions to substances that are especially prone to abuse. The result is a full-blown national health crisis and what experts in recent years have been calling a prescription drug epidemic.

The Surprising Truth: How Opioid Painkillers Are Still Overprescribed, and by Whom

That reality has sparked nationwide efforts to regulate the prescription of opioid painkillers and to educate the American public about the dangers of these drugs. Until now, “pill mills” (the doctors, clinics and pharmacies that prescribe narcotics only for profit, not legitimate medical reasons) have been the targeted culprit. Their reckless prescribing has sparked a string of crackdowns by state and federal law enforcement in recent years.

But, surprisingly, despite such efforts, opioid painkillers are still overprescribed; and chances are, your friendly general practitioner—not your local pill mill—is more to blame.

That’s what a Stanford University study published late last year suggests. The researchers examined Medicare prescription drug claims for 2013 and found that overprescribing of opioids—such as morphine, hydrocodone and oxycodone—is still “widespread.” The implication of this research? That overprescribing is not limited to “a few bad apples.”

Lead author of the study, Dr. Jonathan Chen, put it this way: “The bulk of opioid prescriptions are distributed by the large population of general practitioners.”

In a line-up of the medical professions that lead in over-prescribing Schedule II opioids (painkillers that carry a high potential for abuse), family practitioners won out, followed by internal medicine, nurse practitioners and, lastly, physician assistants.

Opioid and Prescription Drug Abuse: How What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

This widespread overprescribing of opioids means their ready availability in the public domain. In the year 2010, enough prescription painkillers were floating around to medicate every adult in America every four hours for one whole month, for example.

Prescription pills in turn have become one of the most abused drugs in America, accompanied by high rates of addiction and overdose:

  • In the last 20 years, opioid abuse has jumped tenfold.
  • And today more than 52 million people over the age of 12—that’s roughly one in six Americans—have used an opioid painkiller for recreational purposes at some point in their lives.

Teens and Risks of Prescription Drug Abuse and Opioid Addiction

Some of those most susceptible to the risks of prescription drug abuse and opioid addiction are America’s young people:

  • Every day in the U.S., 2,500 youth (aged 12 to 17) abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World.
  • A great majority of these teens start experimenting with opioids after getting them from a friend or family member or finding them in a medicine cabinet. Many others become hooked to opioids after being prescribed them for a sports injury or after a surgery.

Opioid and Prescription Drug Overdose: What to Know and Why

Meanwhile, opioid overdoses continue to soar, having risen by 200 percent since the year 2000, a 2016 CDC report finds. And, a study published last month in the Annals of Internal Medicine concluded that 90 percent of those who survive an opioid overdose continue to be prescribed opioids. Of these 90 percent, two thirds continued to get opioid prescriptions from the same physician who prescribed them before the overdose. The reason? Sources cite misinformation on the part of physicians due to poor communication across providers and a need for better clinician and resident training in opioid tapering and pain and addiction treatment.

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