Turning the corner? Prescription opioid abuse in U.S. finally shows substantial decline

CHICAGO — We could all use a bit more good news these days, and a new study focusing on the opioid epidemic in America is providing just that. Researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago have collected considerable evidence indicating a “significant and continual” decline in American abuse rates involving opioid pain medications.

This study was made possible by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which is an annual survey of over 70,000 Americans inquiring about alcohol, tobacco, and all other drug use. An analysis of the past 10 years’ worth of such surveys led the research team to conclude that the rate of prescription opioid abuse fell by 26 percent between 2007 and 2018.

What counts as an abuse of prescription opioids?

For the purposes for this research, “prescription opioid abuse” was classified as using such drugs without a proper prescription. Opioid drugs may be helpful in a pinch, but long-term use overwhelmingly leads to addiction and adverse health issues.

“Prior research has shown slight reductions in abuse rates, but our analysis shows we’re tracking statistically significant year-to-year declines in abuse, indicating that the decrease is not an anomaly and truly represents a trend in falling prescription drug abuse levels,” says lead study author Mario Moric in a media release. “We believe the message of the dangers of opioid use without supervision of a medical professional is finally getting through and changing people’s mindset and behavior.”

In 2007, 4.9 percent of that year’s respondents admitted to abusing a prescription pain medicine the prior year. Fast forward to 2018, and that percentage dropped to 3.7 percent. According to researchers, that represents a 26-percent drop in substance abuse.

A steady drop in substance abuse

For the most part, the biggest drops in opioid use came between 2012 and 2017. However, that trend didn’t stay consistent in 2015. That year saw higher rates due to a survey redesign.

“Pain medications such as opioids are an important resource in the treatment and care of patients, but they are not a cure-all,” adds study co-author Asokumar Buvanendran, M.D.

Buvanendran is chair of the American Society of Anesthesiologists Committee on Pain Medicine and executive vice chair of anesthesiology at Rush University Medical Center.

“Since opioids have risks and can be highly addictive, they should be used only under the supervision of a physician who can consider their safety and how the medication will affect a patient over time. Prescribers and patients are now better armed with the information they need to make educated choices in pain management.”

This research is set to be presented at the ANESTHESIOLOGY® 2020 annual meeting.

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