Over-the-counter painkillers treated painful injuries just as well as opioids in new study

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.

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