Overuse of Painkillers Starts Young

Prescription opioid abuse is all too common among teens and young adults

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Long-term use of painkillers is rarely a necessity, but teens and young adults often get prescriptions and then develop a hard habit to kick. Youths with mental health disorders are even more at risk for developing a pill habit.

Longitudinal research reveals valuable statistics about the overuse of painkillers.

Researchers suggest that providers and parents team up to make sure teens are getting what they need and only what they need.

"Drop off unused prescriptions at your local pharmacy."

Dr. Laura Richardson, MD, PhD, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, led a team at the Seattle Children’s Research Institute to take a look at the risk of opioid drug abuse in teens with mental health disorders. Prescription drugs like Vicodin and OxyContin are classified as opioids.

The use of opioids to manage pain can result in addiction. Of prescription drug abuse among high school students, opioids account for 86.9 percent. Professionals in the medical community are beginning to question whether or not opioid use is even the most effective way to manage chronic pain.

Researchers collected data from 2001-2008 on 13-24 year old patients with chronic pain. In this study, long-term opioid use was defined as taking more than 90 days' worth of opioids within a six-month period with no break in usage that lasts longer than 30 days over the course of 18 months after the first trip to the doctor.

Cases were selected based on patients having sought treatment for a mental health disorder in the six month before the first need for a pain prescription.

The team discovered 59,077 patients fit into the initial criteria, 321 were categorized as ‘long-term opioid use’ and 16,172 had at least ‘some opioid use’. Youths with pre-existing mental health conditions were 2.4 times more likely to use opioids over the long term compared to no opioid use at all, and 1.8 times more likely to use opioids long term compared to ‘some’ opioid use.

Authors conclude that teenagers and young adults with mental health conditions have a higher likelihood to use opioids long term.

According to Dr. Richardson, “There are a number of reasons why adolescents and young adults with mental health issues are more likely to become long-term users of opioids. Depression and anxiety might increase pain symptoms and lead to longer treatment, and physicians may see depressed patients as being more distressed and may be willing to treat pain symptoms over a longer period of time.”

Dr. Richardson recommends several ways to reduce the risk of long-term opioid use and potential addiction:

  • Providers should be factual and honest with parents and patients about the risks involved in long-term use and abuse of opioids.
  • Providers should check for mental health disorders prior to beginning opioid treatments and refer patients with depression and anxiety to seek counseling.
  • Parents should properly dispose of unused opioids through the ‘take back your drugs’ program at pharmacies and police stations.

These few steps could go a long way in properly monitoring teenage and young adult opioid use and prevent future addiction.

This study was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, June 2012. Funding for this study was provided by grants from the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington and from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. No conflicts of interest were found.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 11, 2012
Last Updated:
October 30, 2012