The U.S. is suffering an opioid epidemic, and the results are devastating. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 90 people around the country die each day from an overdose of opioids, which include prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin. In 2014 alone, there were roughly 1.27 million emergency room visits and hospital stays related to opioids.
Prescription opioid pain relievers are responsible for many of the overdose deaths and for a range of additional medical, psychological, and financial problems. People can develop an addiction to prescription opioids that wreaks havoc on their health and quality of life.
Millions of people around the country misuse prescription opioids. They frequently obtain the drugs through family, friends, and other unsafe and illegal channels. Even when they receive a prescription from a doctor, they may wind up taking the pain relievers at harmful and unnecessarily large dosages and for a longer duration than advisable. It's gotten so bad, that some drug stores are even limiting the amount of pills a person may pick up at once.
Are doctors prescribing too many painkillers?
Prescription practices have come under closer scrutiny and have raised important questions about the ways we use opioid pain relievers. A report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that there were over 255 million prescriptions issued throughout the country in 2012 alone.
By 2016, the number fell to 214 million prescriptions, but that’s still a large amount. The problem affects communities around the country, and some areas have an especially high prescription rate. Even as prescription opioid sales roughly quadrupled between 1999 and 2014, the amount of pain that people in the U.S. reported in medical situations didn’t change. The soaring prescription rates reflect problems in current medical practices.
Should we even be prescribing opioid pain relievers?
On the one hand, unethical or thoughtless prescription practices have played a key role in fueling the opioid epidemic. On the other hand, completely stopping opioid prescriptions may lead to serious harm for certain patients.
There are patients who live with debilitating pain. Sometimes, the pain is part of a temporary condition, such as the recovery period following a surgery or series of surgeries. Other times, the pain stems from conditions that last for years. Severe, protracted pain has a profoundly negative effect on people’s mental and physical health. For some people, prescription opioids help with necessary pain management. If we abruptly end prescriptions, these patients may suffer deeply. If they’ve already developed a dependence on opioid pain relievers, they won’t be able to quickly stop without experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms.
It’s important to balance the needs of people currently using or dependent on opioid pain relievers with the need to reform prescription practices.
What are some of the ways we can lower prescription rates? First, we can encourage clinicians and patients to explore a variety of pain management options. While some situations may require opioid pain relievers, there are many other cases that don’t. Addictive pain relievers shouldn’t be handed out indiscriminately and without serious regard for pain severity and underlying medical need.
Even when a situation calls for the use of opioid pain relievers, clinicians should be more mindful about the type of drug they choose, the dose, the duration of the prescription, and the risks for a specific patient. Pain management needs to be tailored to patients and their individual medical history and experience with pain.
We should also apply greater scrutiny to pharmaceutical companies and certain medical practitioners. For example, in communities that are flooded with opioid prescriptions, what are the underlying reasons? Which companies or individuals are pushing an unnecessarily large volume of pills?
By practicing compassionate care that’s sensitive to individual needs, the medical establishment can wind up cutting down on unnecessary prescriptions and reserving them for certain cases involving serious pain that’s difficult to manage in other ways.
Addressing prescriptions is only one solution
Revising clinical guidelines and taking greater care with prescriptions can help prevent individuals from developing an addiction to opioid pain relievers.
However, it’s important to note that people often successfully obtain opioid pain relievers without going to a doctor. They sometimes also start using heroin and similar drugs. An abundance of prescriptions contributes to the problem, and cutting down on prescriptions will likely result in fewer pills circulating through communities. But it isn’t the only solution to a complex medical and psychological crisis.
Raising awareness about opioids, removing the stigma from addiction, and promoting high-quality substance addiction treatment are essential strategies for fighting the opioid crisis. When it comes to prescriptions, doctors can both address people’s pain management requirements and adopt safer practices for prescribing opioid pain relievers. Powerful, addictive pain relievers shouldn’t be handed out quickly and thoughtlessly. Patients deserve treatment that’s responsive to their medical needs and minimizes the risk of harm.