Doctors Play A Role In The Opioid Addiction Epidemic, Study Finds

We know how opioid addictions end: all too often, in death by overdose. About 16,000 Americans every year die of an overdose of opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone or fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

We know less about how opioid addictions start. It’s much harder to find and study people who start taking too many pills than it is to count dead bodies. But it’s becoming clear that the opioid addictions, which have ruined millions of lives over the past decade, rarely begin the way you might imagine a life-ruining addiction begins — on some gang-ridden street corner.

Many start with an innocuous visit to the doctor’s office.

To begin to figure out how many, a team at the Mayo Clinic, led by pain specialist Dr. W. Michael Hooten, analyzed the medical records of 293 patients given a short-term prescription for opiates for the first time in 2009. These patients were being treated for acute pain — from traumas such as sprained ankles or major surgeries — so their doctors did not expect them to become long-term users of painkillers.

Yet just over 1 in 4 of these patients went on to use opioid painkillers for longer than 90 days, researchers found. A quarter of this subset engaged in so-called long-term use, defined as receiving at least 120 days’ worth of pills or more than 10 separate prescriptions.

It’s not yet clear how many of these patients developed an opioid addiction, Hooten said. (He’s planning on conducting further research in an effort to find out.) Past research has indicated that the “long-term” use category seems to be a key threshold for dependence: a large share of patients who take more than 120 days’ worth of opioids for longer than —> Read More