Poorly Treated Pain Main Reason for Opioid Misuse

By Pat Anson, Editor

Over a third of the U.S. adult population -- nearly 92 million Americans – used prescription opioids in 2015, according to a large new survey that found the primary reason people misuse opioid medication was to relieve pain.

The findings of the annual survey by the Substances Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, seem likely to fuel another round of anti-opioid media coverage about the overdose crisis. 

The study estimated that 11.5 million Americans misused opioids in 2015, and nearly two million thought they were addicted and had an opioid use disorder. 

But a closer reading of the reasons behind the misuse indicates that pain is poorly treated by the healthcare system, especially for Americans who are economically disadvantaged or lack insurance.

“Misuse” in the survey was defined as using an opioid medication without a prescription, for reasons other than directed, or in greater amounts or more often than prescribed.

Asked what was the main reason behind their misuse, two-thirds (66%) of those who self-reported misuse said it was to relieve physical pain. Nearly 11 percent said it was to “get high or feel good” and less than one percent (0.6%) said they were “hooked” or addicted to opioids.

Our results are consistent with findings that pain is a poorly addressed clinical and public health problem in the United States and that it may be a key part of the pathway to misuse or addiction. Because pain is a symptom of many pathologic processes, better prevention and treatment of the underlying disorders are necessary to decrease pain and the morbidity and mortality associated with opioid misuse,” wrote lead author Beth Han, MD, PhD, a SAMHSA researcher.

“Simply restricting access to opioids without offering alternative pain treatments may have limited efficacy in reducing prescription opioid misuse and could lead people to seek prescription opioids outside the health system or to use nonprescription opioids, such as heroin or illicitly made fentanyl, which could increase health, misuse, and overdose risks.”

That appears to be what is happening. The CDC recently acknowledged that opioid prescribing has been in decline since 2010, yet opioid overdoses are soaring around the country, reaching 33,000 deaths in 2015, many of them caused by illicit opioids.  The DEA reported last week that over half the overdoses in Pennsylvania in 2016 were linked to illicit fentanyl. Prescription painkillers were involved in only about 25% of the overdoses, behind fentanyl, heroin, benzodiazepines (anti-anxiety medication), and cocaine.

In the SAMHSA survey, only a third of those who misused opioids said they obtained them legally from a doctor. The rest said they were obtained for free from a friend or relative, or were bought or stolen.

In addition to physical pain, the survey found that economic despair was a leading factor associated with opioid misuse. Uninsured, unemployed and low-income adults had a higher risk of opioid misuse and use disorder. People who were depressed, had suicidal thoughts, or were in poor health also were at higher risk.

“In more than 20 years practicing primary care in safety-net health settings, I have come to think of the patients at highest risk as my patients -- those with lower levels of education and income and higher rates of unemployment and uninsurance, our society's most vulnerable members,” wrote Karen Lasser, MD, Boston Medical Center and Boston University School of Medicine, in an editorial published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

The fact that uninsured persons were twice as likely as those with insurance to report prescription opioid misuse and also had higher rates of use disorders augments the urgency of expanding insurance coverage. With insurance, persons suffering from pain could seek medical care rather than relying on opioids prescribed for others or purchased illegally.”

Over 72,000 American adults participated in the SAMHSA survey. Each interview lasted about an hour and participants received $30 in cash afterwards.