Over 90% of People Who Overdose on Painkillers Continue Using After

By McCarton Ackerman 01/04/16

An overdose isn’t enough of a deterrent for most people to stop using powerful prescription drugs.

Handful of Painkillers
Photo via Shutterstock

A new study from the American College of Physicians shows that more than 90% of those who overdosed on prescription painkillers went right back to receiving and using those same medications.

The findings, published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, involved data on 3,000 patients over a 12-year period that was collected from a national insurance claims database known as Optum. All of the patients had nonfatal overdoses on prescribed opioids that were given to them to address chronic pain.

But despite nearly dying from these medications, 91% of the patients continued to use them after the overdose. Even more surprising is that 70% of these individuals continued to use the same healthcare provider to refill their prescriptions. The research team followed up with all the patients two years later and found that those who continued using these opioids were twice as likely to have another overdose compared to those who ceased using them after the initial episode.

These numbers are particularly disturbing because the trend of overdose deaths from prescription drugs shows no sign of slowing down. Statistics released in September 2014 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that prescription drug deaths had quadrupled in the U.S. between 1999-2011, from 4,263 to over 17,000. The numbers could be even higher because specific drugs weren’t named in about 25% of all drug deaths.

“The amount that [opioids] are administered by well-meaning physicians is excessive,” said Dr. Robert Waldman, an addiction medicine consultant not involved with the research. “Most physicians are people-pleasers who want to help and want to meet people’s needs, and they are more inclined to give people the benefit of the doubt until you are shown otherwise.”

The greatest increase in death rates occurred in Americans between 55-65 years old., while drug deaths actually declined in those between ages 15 to 24.

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.