Researchers at the University of Georgia, School of Social Work claim to have discovered a common factor among people who misuse prescription pain relievers – a recent history of illicit drug abuse. The findings of the nationwide study, published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, state that the methods of acquiring the drug and the age of the individual tend to differ. These results could potentially help healthcare providers control and monitor painkiller misuse.

The Investigation

Prescription pain relievers are the most common prescription drugs that are misused in the US, and this phenomenon has been on the rise in recent years. Among these pain killers, opioids – morphine, codeine, oxycodone – are among the most over-used, attributing to their addictive nature.

This large-scale study was based on the responses of more than 13,000 individuals. Data was collected from the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health, sponsored by the US Department of Health and Human Services. The latter acquires information regarding the use of alcohol, tobacco, illicit and prescription drugs, along with mental health problems from individuals aged 12 and above.

Results Of The Investigation

The study revealed that individuals who had a history of drug abuse (cocaine, marijuana or heroin) within the past year, irrespective of their age, had an increased likelihood of misusing prescription pain killers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has also recently stated that individuals with the highest proportion of opioid pain killer and cocaine misuse was done by heroin abusers.

Orion Mowbray, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work and the study’s lead author stated that the results extended beyond race, ethnicity, socio-economic status and gender. If an individual was a recent illicit drug abuser, his or her odds of misusing pain killers was much higher.

Moreover, it was seen that adults aged 50 and above usually acquired pain relievers from various doctors, while younger individuals got hold of the drugs from friends, acquaintances or drug dealers.

What Needs To Be Done

A report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (a unit of the HHS) published in 2013 reported that the number of emergency treatments for opioid misuse, such as accidental overdose and suicide attempts, had increased by 183 percent between the years 2004 and 2011. Even though the reasons for this drastic increase are not clear, the report does offer certain solutions to deal with this problem.

“If we know how people come to possess the pain relievers they misuse, we can design better ways to lower that likelihood”, suggested Mowbray. “This study gives us the knowledge we need to substantially reduce the opportunities for misuse”.

A more coherent coordination between healthcare workers is required in order to minimize the chances of over-prescribing pain killers to potentially abusive patients. Mowbray also highlighted the importance of bridging the communication gap between doctors, patients and the public. Doctors need to guide elderly patients regarding the consequences of using opioids before writing a prescription, and families need to understand the health risks of prescribing young adults with pain killers as well.