It's been in the news for years that opioids are addicting, even when given for legitimate reasons. News across the country has shown that the average mother, father, son, or daughter took pain medication after a medical or dental procedure to become quickly addicted. And yet the recipes go on.
In the 1990s, when doctors began prescribing opioids to help their patients manage pain, they were still unaware of how addictive these drugs were. But now it is estimated that more than 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioids or heroin, often the drug of choice for people who can no longer take opioids. And according to the latest published figures from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 128 people die from opioid overdoses in the US every day. More than three quarters of a million people have died since 1999. Given these alarming numbers, efforts are being made to reduce prescription opioid use, but not all doctors are catching on.
New research from the University of Pennsylvania looked at nearly 100,000 patients who had knee surgery between January 2015 and June 2019, long after the first alarms about opioid use had sounded. The researchers focused on patients who had never taken opioids before. Some of these patients had a bone-cutting procedure, while others had surgery that was less invasive and only involved tissues and muscles.
The researchers found that opioid prescription rates for these patients varied widely across the country, with the lowest being 40% in South Dakota and the highest being 85% in Nebraska. What all states had in common, however, was that the median prescription strength was too high, putting them at risk of overdosing. "… [D] The average number of pills prescribed was extremely high for outpatient procedures of this type, especially for patients who had not taken opioids prior to surgery," Kit M. Delgado, MD, said in a press release. Dr. Delgado is one of the study's authors and is an assistant professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.
In addition, many patients received more pills for longer than recommended. The stronger the prescription and the longer it takes, the more patients are at risk of addiction. If that's not enough, think carefully about the unused pills and what happens to them. On average, never more than half is taken. This leads to the potential for the pills to be misused or sold.
This study suggests that there might be better guidelines for prescribing pain medication. It is important that postoperative patients feel comfortable, but this should be possible without increasing the risk of addiction. "Despite the recent attention to the management of opioids, we find evidence of significant differences in the practice of prescribing opioids for the most common outpatient procedure and plenty of room for improvement," said Dr. Delgado in a tweet.