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For the past 20 years, the U.S. has been in the midst of an invisible and deadly battle. Prescription opioids. Once thought to be a safe treatment for chronic pain with little to no risk of addiction, they’ve now caused more than 47,000 overdose deaths in 2014. This number is only expected to increase in the coming years. More shocking is that 259 million prescriptions for painkillers were written in 2012 – enough to give every American adult their own bottle. If that doesn’t convey the severity of the situation, the fact that U.S. citizens consume approximately 80 percent of the global opioid supply should.

To understand why this epidemic is only getting worse, we surveyed 2,000 people about their experiences with prescription painkillers. What we found was startling yet honest. Can education help mitigate the situation? What are the reasons for prescribing painkillers? And who exactly is prescribing opioids? Keep reading to see the insights we discovered.

America’s Lengthy Relationship With Opioids

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Tragically, an estimated 46 people lose their lives to prescription opioids every day. But how did this happen? What was the defining moment in time that caused these individuals to get hooked to the point of overdose? The answer lies in the 1990s when pain specialists began arguing that America was suffering from untreated pain. In turn, consumer groups and professionals pushed for an increased use of opioids to manage this pain. Prescription painkillers would be the drug of choice for many (and even minor) ailments in the years that followed. This is evident in our findings.

Of the survey respondents who said they were on prescription painkillers for minor surgery (such as a tooth extraction), 1.6 percent have been on medication for more than a year. About 48 percent have been on painkillers for between one week and one month. When it comes to chronic pain, though, 38 percent of respondents being treated have been on opioids for more than a year. For injuries, 10.7 percent have been on painkillers for more than a year, while 13 percent of respondents being treated for major surgery have been on medication for more than a year.

While addiction doesn’t always happen immediately, opioid tolerance does increase, resulting in a need for higher dosaging. This, in turn, can damage the brain and hinder the production of natural painkillers such as dopamine. A patient being treated for a minor surgery may then find themselves needing more medicine because the original dosage is no longer adequately relieving pain.

While painkillers should be taken for the shortest period of time possible, the recommended length for taking a medication depends on the individual and the extent of injury or pain. But if you suspect that you are becoming dependent or reliant on a prescription medication, DrugAbuse.com has resources to help you.

Sources of Prescription Opioids

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While some people may actively seek out prescription painkillers on the street, in the most recent past, most are receiving their fix through innocuous doctor visits. Unfortunately, this is indicative of a much larger problem. A study of more than 200 primary care doctors revealed that almost all of them wrote scripts that would last the patient more than a three-day period, according to the National Safety Council. They also often prescribe medications for unsuitable conditions and overlook nonaddictive prescriptions that have been shown to be more effective.

“Pill mills,” as pain management clinics are commonly known as, may seem like the easiest route to pain relief, but in recent years, they have been aggressively raided by the Drug Enforcement Administration in an attempt to curb drug abuse. In fact, more than 250 clinics were shut down in Florida in 2015.

Finally, of those currently on painkillers, 12 percent were prescribed medication by a dentist, 5 percent were prescribed through emergency room care, and 1 percent were prescribed by a psychiatrist.

Connected to the Opioid Epidemic

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The ever-growing volume of painkiller prescriptions has resulted in excess. Many patients are illegally sharing their prescribed pain medications. Out of the respondents who know someone who has overdosed, 50 percent have taken a prescription painkiller that was not prescribed to them. Even more shocking, 67 percent have had a family member or friend offer a prescription painkiller that was not prescribed to them. And 44 percent have given a family member or friend a prescription painkiller.

A possible reason why drug-sharing is so rampant has to do with leftover pills. A study in the JAMA Internal Medicine Journal found that 66 percent of patients  still have painkillers in their medicine cabinets post-treatment. Many also shared them with friends or family or failed to store them securely.

Teenagers are also a susceptible demographic. According to 2015 Youth Risk Surveillance Survey, 16.8 percent of students have taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s permission. They may feel that it is safer to take pills from family and friends rather than the streets, and they may be ignorant of the risks associated with painkillers and addiction. They might also be motivated to misuse prescription painkillers to have a good time with friends.

Saving Lives Through Education

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The truth is that many at-risk patients are uneducated about the dangers of prescription opioids. Even doctors – who people rely on to keep them safe – are lacking in pain education. When we asked our participants if their doctor thoroughly explained the side effects, dosage, and other concerns related to the painkiller(s) at the time of prescribing, not everyone felt confident. While 39 percent did agree with this statement, 26 percent did not agree. Even worse, 7 percent of participants strongly disagreed, and 11 percent neither agreed nor disagreed.

Ideally, doctors and other medical professionals should act as gatekeepers. They should only prescribe painkillers when absolutely necessary and while actively monitoring patients for negative side effects – such as addiction, breathing problems, cognitive changes, nausea, and possible overdose. Regrettably, that doesn’t always happen.

As great as it is that health officials are finally working on educating health care providers and implementing state-run monitoring programs, it still isn’t enough. Many patients continue to be left in the dark – a state that could potentially allow for tragedy.

That’s why proactive education is needed. Across the U.S., educational programs are being put in place to teach children about the dangers of prescription opioids. Eventually, this could open up opportunities for similar educational programs for adults who may not receive adequate instruction from doctors.

Generations of Abuse

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As opioid use continues to grow, the degrees of connection are shrinking among people affected by overdose deaths.Who exactly are these people? Which age groups tend to know more people affected by this epidemic? Based on the respondents who said they knew someone who has died from a prescription overdose, about 43 percent were aged 21 to 29, while 33 percent were aged 30 to 39. Ten percent were aged 40 to 49, about 7 percent were aged 50 to 59, and only about 3 percent were aged 60 or older.

It could be that young adults feel that taking prescription painkillers from a physician is much safer than taking illegal drugs, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. They may also feel invincible – that the dangers associated with opioids don’t apply to them. Whatever the reason, it shows that something must be done before it’s too late.

Gaining Independence From Addiction

It’s unfortunate that so many lives have been lost already to prescription painkillers. It’s even more tragic that this number will continue to grow. But even when it doesn’t feel like the situation will ever get better, identifying the underlying issues is a step forward.

Based on our findings, many people – despite the extent of their injury – are on prescription opioids for more than a year. Primary care physicians are prescribing opioids at a much faster rate than other doctors, and a lot of our respondents have been offered painkillers that were not prescribed to them from family and friends.

Both medical care providers and patients lack adequate education when it comes to opioids, and many of our participants feel that doctors are not thoroughly explaining side effects, dosage, and other aspects of the drug. On top of this, those aged 21 to 29 know more people who overdosed on prescription medication than any other age group.

It may feel like an uphill battle, but there is hope. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently called for the government to invest more in the opioid fight, and the FDA has approved an implant that releases buprenorphine, a drug that combats addiction. DrugAbuse.com is also there to help. If you or someone you know is struggling with prescription painkillers or any other form of addiction, call 1-877-759-5122. Trusted representatives will lead you to the right treatment. You don’t have to be defined by your dependence.

Methodology

We surveyed 2,000 people to ask about their experiences with prescription painkillers.

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