Abuse of Prescription Opioid Pain Medication A 'Vast Problem'

Americans are using too many opioid pain relievers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, doctors have noted, and the use of these drugs is leading to deaths through accidental overdoses.

But new research may point to ways to combat this problem, including reducing pain medication prescriptions for children and teens as well as providing training to medical professionals about how to best manage pain.

While opioid pain medications are effective pain treatments, they pose the risk of abuse, addiction and fatal accidental overdose. The number of accidental opioid overdoses in the United States was about 3,000 in 1999; by 2007 it had increased to 12,000. In addition, there has been a fivefold increase over the last decade in the number of people admitted to substance abuse programs for opioid addiction, the researchers say.

"The scope of the problem is vast — opioid overdose is now the second leading cause of accidental death in the United States, and the prevalence is second only to marijuana," said Thomas McLellan, director of the new Center for Substance Abuse Solutions at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.

In a new study, McLellan and his colleagues found 11.7 percent of the 202 million opioid prescriptions issued in the United States in 2009 went to children and young adults. Additional research is needed to determine whether this relatively high rate of prescriptions is warranted, the researchers say. Medical professionals may need to consider alternative medications for young people in some situations, McLellan said.

The results also showed that 56 percent of opioid prescriptions given in 2009  went to patients who had already filled a prescription in the previous month.  Not all of them may be justified, McLellan said.

"More research is needed to see if current practices are working, with a closer look at why so many patients are getting multiple prescriptions within a short period of time," said study researcher Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  "As a nation, it is important that we all become better informed about effective pain management and the risks of abusing prescription painkillers."

The researchers suggested the following ways to combat the rise in opioid medication abuse:

  • Offer updated training programs to physicians, dentists and other medical professionals discussing pain management. (Dentists are the main prescribers for youths age 10 to 19, the researchers found.) The programs would include the latest information on addiction and new drug treatment options.
  • Screen patients for those at risk for drug abuse , including adolescents and those with a history of substance abuse.
  • Increase public awareness of responsible use and storage of pain medication. Individuals should not share pain medications with other people in their family and should keep unused opioids in locked cabinets to prevent theft.

The study, as well as an accompanying commentary, are published in the April 6 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association. It was funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institutes of Health.

Pass it on: Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem in the United States. Focusing in on reducing prescriptions for children and young adults may be one way to curb the problem.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner.  

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.