More People Are Taking Opioids, According To New Poll

By Kelly Burch 03/08/17

People's number one concern about opioid painkillers was addiction, followed by side effects.

Woman taking pill.

A new poll shows that 57% of Americans have been prescribed opioid pain pills at some point in their lives, even though 33% said they were concerned about opioid addiction. 

The data was gathered by a recent poll of 3,000 respondents conducted by NPR and Truven Health Analytics. It shows that the number of Americans being prescribed narcotic painkillers—including Percocet, Vicodin or morphine—continues to increase. In 2014, 54% of Americans said they had received the drugs, and 50% said the same in 2011. 

The poll found that 74% of people received the drugs to treat short-term acute pain, while 19% used the pills to treat chronic pain. 

Although one-third of respondents said they were concerned about addiction, only 29% questioned their doctor’s prescription. That number has fallen slightly. In 2011, 31% of people surveyed questioned their need for narcotics.

More people need to stand up to their doctors and find out whether prescription narcotics are truly necessary, said Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency doctor and health commissioner for Baltimore, Maryland.

"Ask why," Wen says. "Often, other alternatives like not anything at all, taking an ibuprofen or Tylenol, physical therapy, or something else can be effective. Asking 'why' is something every patient and provider should do.”

Wen said that physicians should pay close attention to CDC guidelines released last year that suggest that doctors first try treating pain with non-narcotic options, and, if needed, start patients on the lowest effective dosage. 

"We must all take steps to fix this overprescribing,” Wen said. “Heed the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that say go low and go slow — start with the least harmful and least addictive and work your way up. We need to treat pain, but appropriately."

The CDC has noted that one in four people who use opioid painkillers long term becomes addicted to them

This is reflected in the poll, which shows that people's number one concern about opioid drugs was addiction. Among people who hadn’t used narcotic painkillers, half said they were concerned about the pills, up from 30% in previous years. 

"The drugs are like a two-edged sword," said Ron Ozminkowski, vice president of cognitive analytics at IBM Watson Health, who worked with Truven on the poll. "They're great for people who really need them for heavy duty pain, but they come with addiction risk and side effects."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.