Pain is almost never a good sign and it affects more people in the U.S. than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined. The main treatment for pain comes from prescription pain medications most of which are known as opioids. These meds are extremely valuable when fighting chronic pain, but can lead to some serious side effects if misused, such as organ damage and addiction. Since prescription pain medication is becoming more widely used, more and more research is being undertaken to find out the good and the bad. Here are some major research studies that have come out in 2016 that dive into prescription pain medications.

New prescription pain medication research

1. How drug screenings affect pain patients

Opioid drugs are associated with some negative medical ramifications. Over the last decade, opioid-related deaths have been on the rise in the United States. In a move to find ways to curtail these preventable deaths, researchers from the University of Houston conducted a study on the effect of urine drug screening tests on opioid users.

The team analyzed 4,448 clinic visits by 723 pain patients. It was shown that when a patient is required to perform a drug screening on their first visit to a new clinic, they are much more likely not to show up for a second visit. No show rates for patients average about 10%, but the number more than doubled to 24% when a drug screening process was implemented. The no show rate for those who tested positive for illicit substances was even higher, clocking in around 34.5%.

2. Drug monitoring shown to reduce opioid deaths

The amount of prescription pain medication being given to patients has dramatically risen over the last two decades. In another attempt to curtail abuse and deaths, 49 states (all except Missouri) implemented some level of prescription drug monitoring program. A study led by the Vanderbilt University Medical Center set out to determine if these programs were effective or a waste of time.

The study revealed that the average state program reduced opioid related overdose deaths by 1.12 per 100,000 people. The more robust state programs that monitored four or more drug schedules were closer to 1.55 for 100,000 people. Researchers believe if all 50 states had these new robust programs, the monitoring system could prevent two opioid related deaths a day. As lead author Stephen W. Patrick M.D. states:

“Today, opioid overdose deaths are more common than deaths from car crashes. Our study provides support that prescription drug monitoring programs are part of what needs to be a comprehensive approach to the prescription opioid epidemic.”

3. State laws don’t always protect vulnerable populations

Across all 50 states, 81 new laws have been enacted between 2006 and 2012 to curtail prescribing and dispensing opioids to pain patients. The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice reviewed these laws and compared them to changes in data among one of the most vulnerable and at-risk populations of opioid overdose or abuse: disabled Medicare beneficiaries.

The study revealed that these laws had no significant effect on the 2.2 million disabled Medicare beneficiaries, from the ages between 21 and 64. This is quite shocking considering this vulnerable population had ten times the average U.S. death rate from opioid overdose in 2008. According to Ellen Meara, PhD, the leading author:

“Opioid abuse is a growing threat to public health; prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) and other laws are costly. Our findings indicate they don’t do much to curb opioid abuse or overdose, at least in this vulnerable population. States might invest more resources in evaluating the effectiveness of legislation.”

4. Parents often keep unused prescription opioid drugs at home

C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health was administered to parents with children from ages five to 17 in January 2016. The poll was aimed at obtaining a deeper understanding of the experience parents have when giving pain medication to their children after events such as surgery, illness, and injury.

The poll discovered that children are frequently given more medication than is necessary and that many parents keep these opioids at home, which can lead to drug misuse among children. The poll showed that of the half of parents who had left over medication, only 8% returned it to a doctor or pharmacy. 47% kept the pills at home, 30% disposed of them via the trash or toilet, 6% used it for other family members, and 9% couldn’t recall what they did with it.

It was also reported that only 33% of providers discussed what the parents should do with the extra medication. This is significant because parents who did not receive instructions were twice as likely to keep these pills at home.

5. Nonmedical prescription opioid use almost doubled in last decade

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism conducted a study on nonmedical prescription opioid use (NMPOU) and its related disorder (NMPOUD). The symptoms for these include taking larger amounts than intended, taking drugs for longer time periods than needed, failure in other areas of life due to drug abuse, and increased tolerance or withdrawal symptoms.

It was found that NMPOU has increased by 161% between 2001 and 2013 while nonmedical prescription opioid use disorder has increased by 125%. The study also revealed that those suffering from these conditions are rarely treated: 5% of people misusing these drugs were treated in the last year and only 17% of those with NMPOUD are ever helped. According to Nora D. Volkow, M.D director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse:

“The increasing misuse of prescription opioid pain relievers poses a myriad of serious public health consequences. These include increases in opioid use disorders and related fatalities from overdoses, as well as the rising incidence of newborns who experience neonatal abstinence syndrome. In some instances, prescription opioid misuse can progress to intravenous heroin use with consequent increases in risk for HIV, hepatitis C and other infections among individuals sharing needles.”

Prescription pain medication research is extremely important. What do you think would be the next best research study to conduct?

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