Archived 02/02/2017

By Pamela Hyde, J.D.

Opioid medications in the U.S. are often prescribed by clinicians to treat acute or chronic pain, whether it’s caused by a serious injury or surgery, terminal cancer, or some other problem.

Yet some people take these powerful drugs even when they do not have symptoms or conditions for which they are appropriately prescribed. In fact, non-medical use of prescription drugs is the second most common form of illicit drug use in this country – second only to marijuana.

According to SAMHSA’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2.5 percent (5.9 million) of Americans aged 18 and older were current non-medical users of prescription-type drugs in 2013, with 1.7 percent (4.1 million) non-medical users of pain relievers. Adolescents aged 12 to 17 are following in their elders’ footsteps. In 2013, 2.2 percent (549,000) were current non-medical users of prescription-type drugs. Like adults, 1.7 percent (425,000) were inappropriately using pain relievers.

Some of these individuals become addicted after being prescribed these medications by a physician or other clinician treating their pain. Others simply want the feeling or experience these drugs bring.

The results can be deadly. A recent analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that while death rates from overdoses of prescription opioid pain relievers dropped between 2010 and 2012 in much of the country, the death rate of 5.6 per 100,000 was almost triple the death rate of heroin overdoses.

Physicians, dentists, and other health care practitioners do not always get the training they need to manage pain or treat substance use disorders effectively, but there’s a hunger for information about opioid addiction and how to prevent and treat it. The “Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit,” which provides resources for local governments, communities, providers, families, and consumers, is the most downloaded document in the SAMHSA store’s history. SAMHSA also recently launched a free training course on WebMD that helps providers through the process of screening, intervening, and referring people who may be misusing medicines.

In addition to the toolkit and online curricula, SAMHSA has produced other training resources for health care providers, including manuals like Managing Chronic Pain in Adults with or in Recovery from Substance Use Disorders and online training and mentoring opportunities through our Providers’ Clinical Support System for Opioid Therapies and Providers’ Clinical Support System for Medication Assisted Treatment. We have also created resources for consumers, such as “You Can Manage Your Chronic Pain to Live a Good Life: A Guide for People in Recovery from Mental Illness or Addiction.”

We all need to work together to make sure these powerful drugs only get used by the people who truly need them and for the purposes for which they are prescribed.  This includes preventing people from sharing them with others for whom they have not been prescribed and keeping them locked up and away from children and youth. In attending to all of these aspects of the issue, we can achieve a positive impact on the health of Americans at risk for misuse of prescription medications and help to reduce adverse consequences such as addiction and toxicities associated with misuse of these medications.