Chronic pain may be a major driver behind the recent surge in addiction to prescription painkillers, a new survey finds.
Opioid addiction and prescription drug abuse in the United States are among the country’s biggest public health threats, the researchers said. And, more than eight in 10 people abusing prescription drugs said they were doing so to treat pain.
“While the association between chronic pain and drug addiction has been observed in prior studies, this study goes one step further to quantify how many of these patients are using these substances specifically to treat chronic pain,” said study corresponding author Dr. Daniel Alford.
“It also measures the prevalence of chronic pain in patients who screen positive for illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse,” Alford said in a Boston University news release. He is director of the Safe and Competent Opioid Prescribing Education program at the university’s medical school
For the study, the researchers screened roughly 25,000 patients for abuse of prescription medications and illegal drug use. From this group, 589 met the criteria for substance abuse.
This group was then asked about chronic pain, as well as their use of prescription or illegal drugs, or heavy alcohol consumption.
The researchers found that 87 percent reported chronic pain. About half of those who faced chronic pain said their discomfort was severe, the researchers found.
Eighty-one percent of those misusing prescription drugs said they were treating pain. A similar number — 79 percent — abused alcohol in an attempt to dull their pain, the study revealed.
Among the participants who used illegal drugs, 51 percent said they used at least one drug specifically to reduce their pain, the study said.
The researchers said their findings suggest that drug- and alcohol-abuse counseling strategies should consider if people turned to these substances to manage pain.
“Pain should be treated as part of the long-term strategy for recovery,” said Alford. “If drugs are being used to self-medicate pain, patients may be reluctant to decrease, stop or remain abstinent if their pain symptoms are not adequately managed with other treatments including non-medication-based treatments.”
Results of the study were published in the May issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse provides more information on drug abuse and addiction.