A disturbing new government study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine revealed that 38 percent of American adults were prescribed opioids such as OxyContin and Percocet in 2015, and many of these people misused these dangerous drugs. The author of the study, the National Institute on Drug Abuse Deputy Director Dr. Wilson Compton, said that he was surprised by the findings.
The researchers assessed the data collected from more than 50,000 American adults in 2015 in face-to-face interviews carried out by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The groups that were most likely to be prescribed opioids were women, people aged 50 and above, and people who were not college graduates.
In total, 5 percent of American adults, or 11.5 million people, were misusing opioids, whether it was by taking the drugs without a prescription, taking them to get high, or taking more than prescribed. Moreover, around 1 percent of adults reported being addicted to the drugs. If that sounds like a small fraction to you, think again: It equates to around 1.9 million Americans, and it’s possible some people who are addicted were not so forthcoming in interviews and that the real number is higher. Those with low family incomes and no job or health insurance were more likely to have this problem.
Among those who misuse opioids, nearly two thirds said they were doing it in order to alleviate pain. More than two out five got the drugs from friends or family. The researchers said that many people are prescribed opioids they don’t really need and then pass them on to family and friends who are in pain. This indicates that doctors are not only prescribing the drugs when they’re not needed, but that they are also writing prescriptions that are too big.
It’s mind-boggling to see such a high number of people being prescribed these drugs even as concerns about widespread addiction and deadly overdoses grow. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioid prescriptions and fatal overdoses involving opioids have both quadrupled since 1999. That cannot be a coincidence, and Compton said that the medical profession is not prescribing these painkillers appropriately.
Indeed, a recent audit discovered that one third of all Ohio doctors failed to check patients’ prescription histories in a database as required prior to prescribing opioid-based painkillers. In that state, eight people die every day from overdoses. One particularly egregious doctor prescribed opioids to more than 700 patients in one month without carrying out a single check.
The CDC reports that opioids killed more than 33,000 Americans in 2015, breaking the previous record. Nearly half of all of these deaths involved prescription opioids.
Boston University School of Medicine’s associate professor of medicine and public health, Dr. Karen Lasser, wrote in an editorial accompanying the study that a stepped-care approach should be adopted to pain management and that opioids should always be the last resort. She feels that doctors should first try non-drug pain management techniques like yoga, physical therapy or acupuncture, or give patients milder pain medication like ibuprofen or aspirin first. She also suggested that patients should be asked to sign a treatment agreement prior to taking opioids that highlights the risks of the medications so that they have a better understanding of their addictive nature.