Arizona Teens Are Misusing Prescription Opioids At A Shocking Rate

By Paul Gaita 11/30/17

Experts believe that parents failing to communicate with teens about the opioid epidemic may contribute to the issue.

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One month after skyrocketing opioid deaths prompted Arizona Governor Doug Ducey to issue an emergency declaration in his state, the non-profit hospital and healthcare facility corporation, Dignity Health, issued a web-based survey about prescription opioid use to Arizona adults and teenagers.

Among the responses they received was the fact that 25% of the teenagers in the poll stated that they had used prescription opioids without a doctor's consent. Additionally, two-thirds of parents polled in the survey believed that prescription drug abuse is a serious problem among teens—but half of that demographic believed that painkillers were appropriate for sports injuries incurred by their children, while 44% would authorize them for acute or short-term pain.

The survey, conducted by Dignity Health and the Barrow Neurological Institute, took place between July 14-31, 2017. Teenagers between the ages of 14 and 18 and parents of teenagers within that age range were the focus of the survey, and responses were drawn from a sample of 313 teens and 201 parents.

Among the other survey responses regarding opioid use, 56% of teens polled believed that opioid abuse was a serious problem, but a larger percentage (64%) cited bullying as a greater concern. Parents, too, viewed bullying as a problem serious enough to warrant discussion with their children; 85% of parents polled said that they had talked to their kids about bullying, but just two-thirds of parents said that they had talked about opioid use with their children.

But not addressing the opioid epidemic with teens could also be contributing to the problem as a whole. "We see teenagers in our emergency room all the time who are suffering from opioid addiction," said Dr. Sandra Indermuhle, director of Emergency Services at Arizona's Dignity Health Chandler Regional Hospital. "I believe strongly that one of the keys to preventing these cases is communication. Parents need to let their kids know that this is a problem in the community and that it is very dangerous."

Parental views on opioid-based treatment for sports injuries also raised concern for the survey's authors. "There is pressure to return to play and pressure to play through pain," said sports neurologist Dr. Javier Cardenas, who serves as director of the Concussion and Brain Injury Center at Barrow Neurological Institute, to KPNX. "[Teen athletes] are more likely to take opioids longer than is prescribed, and at a higher dose than is prescribed."

To that end, Barrow is developing an opioid education program in collaboration with the Arizona Interscholastic Association, Maricopa County Health Department and Arizona Department of Health Services. The program will focus on student athletes due to their higher likelihood of being prescribed opioids due to injury, but education about opioid use will also be available to other students through health classes.

Indermuhle is also partnering with the Chandler/Gilbert Substance Misuse and Treatment Task Force to provide education about substance dependency to the public.

Both medical professionals noted that there are situations in which opioid use was appropriate, from acute pain scenarios like a bone fracture to more chronic pain situations like surgery or cancer. "The answer is not to stop [opioids] altogether," said Cardenas in an interview with The Arizona Republic. "There is a place for them. We want to make sure we are not putting people in a position to develop a dependency."

Indermuhle advised that pain like muscle strain might benefit more from NSAIDs or over-the-counter pain treatment like acetaminophen.

She also suggested that "non-medication strategies," such as physical therapy, chiropractic care and yoga, might yield positive results. "One of the main points I try to impress on my patients with chronic pain is the alternatives to high dose pain medications," she said. "Pain medication is not the only answer to help these patients."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.