Study: Drug Abusers Responsible for Painkiller Misuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

A new analysis of a federal health survey has confirmed what many pain patients have been saying all along – that drug abusers, not patients, are largely responsible for the so-called epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse.

Researchers at the University of Georgia analyzed data from the 2011-2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Over 13,000 Americans aged 12 and older were asked about their use of prescription drugs, illegal drugs, tobacco, and alcohol.

Less than 5% of those surveyed reported they had used a pain medication not prescribed for them or that they took it only for the "high" feeling it caused.

A further analysis of those abusers found that marijuana, cocaine or heroin use within the past year was the “only consistent predictor” of pain reliever misuse among all age groups.

"Male or female, black or white, rich or poor, the singular thing we found was that if they were an illicit drug user, they also had many, many times higher odds of misusing prescription pain relievers," said lead author Orion Mowbray, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work and the University of Georgia.

The findings are published in the journal Addictive Behaviors.

Asked where they obtained painkillers, the vast majority of the abusers said they did not get the drugs through a legitimate prescription, but had stolen them, acquired them from friends or relatives, bought them from a drug dealer, or used a fake prescription.

"If we know how people come to possess the pain relievers they misuse, we can design better ways to lower that likelihood," said Mowbray. "This study gives us the knowledge we need to substantially reduce the opportunities for misuse."

Adults aged 50 and older were more likely to acquire pain relievers through more than one doctor, although the rate of misuse in that age group was the lowest (1.7%).

People between the ages of 18 and 25 were most likely to misuse painkillers (10.2%) and more likely to get them from a friend, relative or drug dealer.

The study calls for greater coordination between medical care providers to reduce the possibility of over-prescription of painkillers, and for improving the communication between doctors, patients and the public.

"Doctors may conduct higher quality conversations with older patients about the consequences of drug use before they make any prescription decisions, while families and friends should know about the substantial health risks before they supply a young person with a prescription pain reliever," said Mowbray.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 16,500 deaths in the U.S. were linked to opioid overdoses in 2010.

More recent data suggest that the “epidemic” of painkiller abuse is abating.

Hydrocodone prescriptions fell by 8% last year and it is no longer the most widely prescribed medication in the U.S.

A recent report by a large national health insurer found that total opioid dispensing declined by 19% from 2010 to 2012 and the overdose rate dropped by 20 percent.

According to the National Institutes of Health, only about 5% of patients taking opioids as directed for a year end up with an addiction problem.