Opioid Painkillers are Usually Obtained from Friends, Not Doctors

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There has been increasing focus on the need for regulation of prescriptions being issued by doctors for painkillers that contain highly-addictive opioids. Previous research has shown high numbers of addiction, with experts calling for increased regulation of prescriptions, including screening of patients for prior drug addiction and the development of a monitoring software that would record prescriptions written for painkillers.

However, new research suggests that new regulations for doctors and their patients may only put a small dent in the problem of nonmedical use for prescription opioids. A study published by researchers at Yale shows that most of the nonmedical use of prescription opioids is sourced by friends of the individual, not a doctor’s unregulated prescription.

Led by Dr. William Becker, the researchers analyzed 2006-2008 data provided by the National Household Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), which is an annual report issued on the drug habits of thousands of people across the United States. The study’s results are published in the Archives of Internal Medicine

The study’s results showed that only about 1 in 5 who abuse opioid painkillers get their drugs exclusively from their doctors, and an overwhelming 69 percent who use the painkillers never obtain any type of prescription or sample from their doctors.

The survey highlighted over 3,000 people over the age of 18 who reported the use of opioid painkillers not prescribed to them or for nonmedical reasons over the past month. Younger opioid users were less likely to obtain their drugs from a doctor than older adults. Over three quarters (77 percent) of 18- to 25-year-olds obtained painkillers exclusively from nonmedical sources, compared with 52 percent of those over the age of 50.

Previous research has shown that only about 3 percent of opioid users become addicted to the drugs because they were prescribed by their doctors. However, there continues to be a push for doctors to closely regulate prescriptions issued for painkillers, despite the low percentage of opioid addictions that originate with a prescription from a doctor.

The data from NSDUH also showed that 80 percent of Oxycontin users have a history of cocaine use, indicating that there is often a history of substance abuse among those who have developed a problem with opioid painkillers. It also suggests that these same users of opioids also had a problem that did not originate with a legitimate prescription written for the relief of chronic pain.

The authors of the analysis suggest that rather than exclusively focusing energy into regulatory measures for physicians writing opioid painkiller prescriptions, that efforts be made to understand the factors that drive people to seek out opioids from other sources.

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