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Opioid Addiction is Predictable and Potentially Avoidable if Physicians Change Screening Habits

Most people only use prescription opioids for a short period of time. According to a new study published in PAIN, The Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain, less than two percent of people prescribed opioid-based pain killers are still legally taking them six months after they’re first prescribed. Even while the prescription opioid epidemic continues to wreak havoc on public health across the country, for most people who find themselves filling a prescription for opioid-based medication, their experience with the notorious class of drugs will be short and uneventful.

There are some people, though, for whom the risks of a prescription for opioid-based pain killers could outweigh possible benefits. These are people who may become addicted in that short period of legal use. Researchers from the same study that found a mere 1.7% of people legally continue taking prescription opioids after six months also identified certain risk factors associated with prescription opioids that increase the likelihood a person will develop an addiction to the drugs.

Specifically, researchers found that patients with a history of anxiety, depression or self-injury were more likely to continue using prescription opioids for more than six months, correlating with a higher likelihood of abuse. Not surprisingly, researchers also found that a history of substance abuse made individuals statistically more likely to misuse or develop a dependence on prescription opioids. Being involved in a motor vehicle accident or having a diagnosed sleep disorder and/or a history of taking other psychotropic medicine also puts patients at a higher risk for opioid abuse.

The good news? These are all risk factors physicians can screen for before prescribing opioid painkillers.

That’s not all. Prolonged use of prescription opioids can also increase a patient’s likelihood of developing other harmful conditions in addition to addiction. A study conducted by researchers at the St. Louis University School of Medicine and published in the Annals of Family Medicine found that patients using prescription opioids for more than thirty days were at increased risk of developing depression.

As a debilitating yet common mental health condition, depression is itself a risk factor for developing an addiction. Prescribing opioid-based medications not only puts the patient at a higher risk for addiction; continued use of prescription opioids over time interacts with an individual’s brain chemistry to foster mental health conditions that predispose to addiction. It’s a catch-22. Opioids can be the switch that flips a person into a dangerous circle of mental illness and addiction.

Although the Centers for Disease Control recently released new clinical guidelines for prescribing opioids, especially for the treatment of chronic pain, there are no formal protocols in place that require a doctor to follow these guidelines when seeing patients.

Doctors now have solid, new information to help their patients avoid opioid abuse. These studies’ findings point to concrete risk factors associated with long-term opioid abuse; they should be embraced by physicians. Following thorough protocols to determine when it is safe and most appropriate to prescribe opioid-based medications, including instituting a screen for patients to identify risk factors, is essential to ending the opioid overdose epidemic.