Americans Are Popping Opioids More Than Ever Before

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Steve Birr Vice Reporter
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More Americans are taking prescription painkillers than ever before, despite record heroin abuse and rising overdose death rates connected to opioids.

A new national survey from Truven Health Analytics and NPR reveals more than half of the U.S. population reports receiving a prescription for opioids at least once from their doctor, a 7 percent increase since 2011. Only 19 percent of respondents, however, received the painkillers for chronic pain. Seventy-four percent of respondents said doctors doled out prescription narcotics for acute pain, like a broken bone or a procedure to remove wisdom teeth, reports NPR.

Addiction experts blame much of the explosion of heroin use since 2010 on the over-prescribing of pain medications for more than a decade. Addicts may begin with a dependence on opioid pills before transitioning to heroin after building up a tolerance that makes pills too expensive. Officials with the DEA say four out of five heroin addicts started with painkillers.

“They’re great for people who really need them for heavy duty pain, but they come with addiction risk and side effects,” Ron Ozminkowski, ‎vice president of cognitive analytics at IBM Watson Health, told NPR. “Doctors have to think twice about how they use the tools in their pain killing tool kit.”

Among people not currently taking opioids, nearly half view addiction as the biggest threat from using painkillers. Among current patients on opioids, fears over unwanted side effects still dwarf fears about long-term dependence and addiction. Medical professionals say doctors need to start by prescribing the least potent and least addictive pain treatment option, and then cautiously go from there.

Experts also say the patient must take greater responsibility when they visit their doctor and always ask “why” before accepting a prescription.

“Often, other alternatives like not anything at all, taking an ibuprofen or Tylenol, physical therapy, or something else can be effective,” Dr. Leana Wen, commissioner of health for the City of Baltimore, told NPR. “Asking ‘why’ is something every patient and provider should do.”

A record 33,000 Americans died from opioid related overdoses in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioid deaths contributed to the first drop in U.S. life expectancy since 1993 and eclipsed deaths from motor vehicle accidents in 2015.

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