In an opioid epidemic that currently claims an average of 91 lives per day, there have been many paths to addiction. For some, it started with a fall or a sports injury, a trip to a nearby emergency room and a prescription for a narcotic pain reliever that seemed to work well in the ER.
New research underscores how tragically risky — and unnecessary — such prescribing choices have been.
In a new study of patients who showed up to an emergency department with acute pain in their shoulders, arms, hips or legs, researchers found that a cocktail of two non-addictive, over-the-counter drugs relieved pain just as well as — and maybe just a little better than — a trio of opioid pain medications widely prescribed under such circumstances.
The epidemic of opiate addiction, which has left roughly 2 million Americans addicted to narcotic painkillers, has claimed more than 183,000 lives since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Emergency department prescribing decisions have played a key role in fueling that crisis. One study found that between 2001 and 2010, the share of U.S. emergency department visits that resulted in a prescription for an opioid analgesic rose by nearly 50%, from 21% to 31%.
Not everyone who gets narcotic pain medication will become addicted. But a report released in July by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine found that, among patients prescribed opioid pain relievers, at least 8% develop “opioid use disorder,” and 15% to 26% engage in problematic behaviors that suggest they have become dependent.