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Study Finds 1 in 10 Older Teens Misuse Prescription Pain Meds

With prescription medication abuse at epidemic levels nationwide, and overdoses killing more people than auto accidents in many states, a new University of Michigan (U-M) study provides striking new data about the misuse of potent prescription pain meds and sedatives by teens and young adults.

In all, 10.4% of the teens and young adults treated in the emergency department for any reason admitted to misusing a prescription pain medication or sedative at least once in the last year, the study finds. That included taking the drugs to get high, taking more of the drug than was prescribed to them, or taking drugs prescribed to someone else.

What’s more, most of this use was apparently illicit: The vast majority of those who admitted this use had no prescriptions for these drugs on their medical records.

The study also raises the possibility that emergency department visits, for any reason, could become important occasions for detecting and addressing prescription drug problems among young people.

The results are published in Pediatrics by a team from the U-M Medical School and U-M Injury Center. They draw their data from a large, confidential, tablet-based survey of 2,135 people between the ages of 14 and 20, conducted in 2010 and 2011 during visits to the U-M Health System’s adult and pediatric emergency departments.

It’s the first time this issue has been studied in an emergency department setting, even though emergency department doctors often prescribe opioid pain meds and sedatives for emergency use. They also care for many patients who have accidentally or intentionally overdosed on these drugs. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that 100 deaths per day, and around 700,000 emergency department visits per year, result from prescription drug overdoses.

School-based studies have found rates of misuse among young people to be around 8%. But such studies miss those who have dropped out of school or did not continue their education past high school.

Lauren Whiteside, MD, who led the study during her U-M Injury Center postdoctoral research fellowship, says the findings suggest that emergency department could be an effective setting for screening teens and young adults for prescription drug misuse, and for intervening early before problems arise.

She also noted that it’s important for emergency physicians to be aware of the risk that patients could be seeking drugs for misuse or diversion to others when they come to the emergency department.

The study reveals several risk factors that were associated with nonmedical use of prescription pain meds and sedatives.

For instance, those who misused pain medications were more likely to receive an intravenous opioid pain med during their visit. And across the board, those who misused prescription drugs were significantly more likely to have also abused alcohol and nonprescription drugs such as cough medicine, or to have used marijuana, in the past year. They were also more likely to have ridden with a drunken driver.

“These patients are often using the emergency department for their medical care, not primary care settings,” says Whiteside. “So, in order to curb this problem and address overdose and addiction, the [emergency department] is a good place to start.”

— Source: University of Michigan Health System