Misuse Of Prescription Opioids Has More Than Doubled In the US In the Past Decade

An increasing number of people in the US are not following prescription guidelines when using opioid painkillers. Arman Zhenikeyev/Shutterstock
Ben Taub 23 Jun 2016, 17:32

Amid concerns about an epidemic of accidental overdose deaths sweeping the nation, new research from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reveals that the number of people misusing prescription opioids has skyrocketed since the turn of the millennium. Given the potential for addiction and other nasty side effects associated with these drugs, the alarming statistics revealed in the study have aroused serious concern among public health officials.

content-1466690877-painkiller-addiction.Opioid drugs such as OxyContin and Vicodin are among the most effective painkillers currently on the market, and work by binding to the opiate receptors in the brain and central nervous system. However, excessive use of these substances can lead to tolerance, whereby the body requires ever-increasing amounts of the drug in order to feel these effects. As such, users run the risk of becoming addicted if they don’t follow dosage guidelines. Furthermore, taking too much in one go can cause the respiratory system to become suppressed, potentially leading to a fatal overdose.

In spite of this, nonmedical prescription opioid use (NMPOU) – which refers to the consumption of more than the prescribed dose, or using drugs without a prescription altogether – is currently on the rise across the US. According to the new study, which appears in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 4.1 percent of the adult US population reported NMPOU in 2012-13, compared to just 1.8 percent in 2001-02.

Furthermore, a staggering 11.3 percent of American adults reported having engaged in NMPOU at any point in their lives by 2012 to 13, while just 4.7 percent had done so in 2001-02. Commenting on this alarming trend, NIAAA director George Koob warned of the dangers of mixing prescription opioids with other non-compatible substances, saying “it is important that clinicians and patients also recognize the potent interaction of opioids with alcohol and other sedative-hypnotic drugs – an interaction that can be lethal.”

Image: Taking more than the prescribed dose of opioid drugs can be extremely dangerous. g-stockstudio/Shutterstock

As a consequences of the nationwide increase in NMPOU, the number of people displaying symptoms of nonmedical prescription opioid use disorder (NMPOUD) has also skyrocketed. Symptoms of this condition include building up a tolerance to prescription opioids, experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not using the drugs, and failure to fulfil key responsibilities at work, school or home as a direct result of opioid use.

According to the figures, which were collected as part of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions-III (NESARC-III), 0.4 percent of US adults experienced NMPOUD in 2001 to 2002, while 1.4 percent had developed symptoms at any point in their lives. By 2012-13, past-year NMPOUD rates had risen to 0.9 percent, while lifetime rates were 2.1 percent.

Though the reasons for this shocking trend are not yet clear, the researchers suspect it may be the consequence of a combination of factors, such as an increase in prescriptions and a general lack of understanding over the addictive potential of opioid drugs.

Misusing prescription opioids can lead to addiction and even fatal overdoses. Pop Paul-Catalin/Shutterstock

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