The overuse of opioids for chronic pain

The use of prescription opioids for chronic pain is so high that it is considered an epidemic in the United States. The CDC has developed a guideline to help improve care and reduce the risks.

The overuse of prescription opioids in the United States is at an all-time high. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the amount of opioids prescribed and sold in the U.S. has quadrupled since 1999 even though the amount of pain reported by Americans hasn’t significantly changed. The CDC reports the following statistics:

  • More than 40 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids.
  • Since 1999, there have been over 165,000 deaths from overdoses related to prescription opioids.
  • 4.3 million Americans engaged in non-medical use of prescription opioids in the last month.
  • 249 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication were written by healthcare providers in 2013 (enough prescriptions were written for every American adult to have a bottle of pills).
  • As many as one in four patients receiving long-term opioid therapy in primary care settings struggle with opioid use disorder.

Most opioids are prescribed to patients who suffer from chronic pain. According to Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Pain, chronic pain is defined as pain lasting longer than three to six months, which is beyond the normal time for healing and recovery. Living a Healthy Life with Chronic Pain states that chronic pain can vary considerably in intensity and is often unpredictable, which makes it more of a challenge to diagnose and manage.

The CDC has issued a Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain to help improve the care and reduce the risks for adult patients experiencing chronic pain in outpatient settings – the guideline is not intended for patients who are receiving treatment for cancer, palliative care or end of life care.

Before patients start using opioids to treat their chronic pain, the CDC recommends that they make informed decisions with their doctors, learn the risks associated with prescription opioids, and consider alternative ways to manage their pain such as physical therapy, exercise, non-opioid medications and cognitive behavioral therapy. Michigan State University Extension offers an evidence-based, six-week, self-management series called Chronic Pain PATH (Personal Action Towards Health) that focuses on the skills outlined by the CDC. Chronic Pain PATH is designed to better equip individuals to face the daily challenges of living with chronic pain. For more information about this program, contact your local MSU Extension office. 

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