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Every day there are 44 more deaths attributed to an overdose of prescription pain killers, not to mention the number of people that get addicted to these opioids. The medical purpose of prescription pain pills is to relieve moderate to severe pain, usually after surgery, becoming injured, or for an illness like cancer.

However, the number of opioid drugs being prescribed has skyrocketed over the last 15 years in this country.  In fact, we have recently seen a huge increase in the use of prescription opioid medications in the treatment of less severe forms of chronic pain, like for osteoarthritis or back pain. The drugs that most commonly cause an overdose death are Hydrocodone (Vicodin), Methadone (when prescribed to relieve pain), Oxycodone (OxyContin), and Oxymorphone (Opapa).

Studies show that almost 2,000,000 Americans in 2013 were engaged in prescription drug abuse. Nearly 7,000 people are rushed to emergency rooms each day in the U.S. due to the misuse of these types of drugs.

A recent study was conducted to get a current picture of problematic opioid use in people suffering from chronic pain. In categorizing the different uses of prescription pain killers in terms of the type of problem this presents, three categories were described: the misuse, abuse, or addiction of.

Misuse – Using opioids against the prescribed or directed pattern of use, whether this use is harmful or causes adverse side effects or not.

Abuse – The intentional use of opioids for nonmedical purposes, like to alter the person’s state of consciousness or bring about a sense of euphoria.

Addiction – A pattern of ongoing use that has demonstrated its potential for causing harm, such as a lack of control over using drugs, a compulsion to use these drugs, continuing to use despite the harm it is causing and a craving for prescription pain killers.

A total of 38 articles were reviewed in this study, with 32% offering information related to addiction and 75% offering information related to misuse. Just one article reported specifically on prescription drug abuse. The documented rates of misuse were from 0.08% to 81% and the addiction rates went from 0.7% to 34.1%.

Misuse was documented in 21.7% to 29.3% of patients and addiction in 7.8% to 11.7% patients. Using a more precise method of calculation, the rates of misuse went from 23.6% to 24.9% and for addiction; the addiction rates were from 8.8% to 10.7%. 

The Implications for Prescription Drug Abuse 

First, the patterns of misuse and addiction are distinct from one another as problematic prescription pain killer use, based on the above definitions. Second, the misuse of prescription pain killers is apparently more common than being addicted. A number of different types of misuse showed up in the studies, which were underuse, disorganized or erratic use, inappropriate use (to quell anxiety or other types of distress), using with alcohol or illicit substances like marijuana, and overuse.

If it is true that about 25% of patients on opioids show a pattern of prescription painkiller misuse, but are not addicted, then it seems like treatment resources could be more efficiently targeted and used. Certain types of misuse may be more readily treated with less intensive methods, such as appropriate education or more frequent follow-up appointments.

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta showed that Tennessee had more prescriptions for pain killers than any other state. Tennessee tied with the state of Alabama for the most pain pill prescriptions written at 143 per 100 people. That is, there are more prescriptions for pain medication than there are citizens.

Help for prescription drug abuse is available now.

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