Teens, Adults Still Prescribed Opioids at High Rates

Opioid prescriptions in emergency settings for teens and young adults remain high, a new study finds.

OPIOID Prescriptions in emergency settings for teens and young adults remain high despite an increased understanding of their susceptibility to misuse the highly addictive drugs, a new study says. Researchers from Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School used data from two national surveys under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics division to examine whether the rate of opioid prescriptions changed from 2005 to 2015 for teens and young adults between the ages of 13 and 22 in emergency room and outpatient clinic settings. Within the 11-year period, nearly 15% of emergency room visits and 2.8% of outpatient clinic visits resulted in an opioid prescription for this highly susceptible age group, according to the study, published Tuesday in the journal Pediatrics. Overall, 5.2% of visits – representing nearly 52 million visits – by adolescents and young adults resulted in an opioid prescription, the study said.

"To be frank, these were numbers that surprised us a little bit with how high those numbers were," Dr. Joel Hudgins, clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital and lead author of the study, said to CNN. Visits for dental disorders most commonly resulted in an opioid prescription, at 59.7% for adolescents and 57.9% for young adults, according to the study. “The actual recommendation for this is for Tylenol or ibuprofen, not opioids,” Hudgins told NBC News.Collarbone fracture cases were the second-most likely to receive an opioid prescription for adolescents, at 47%; 38% of visits for lower back pain among young adults resulted in an opioid prescription. Hudgins said the researchers were also surprised to see opioids prescribed for 12.5% of visits for sore throats and 16.7% of urinary tract infection visits for adults between the ages of 18 and 22. The study comes as the opioid crisis – declared a national public health emergency in November 2018 – continues to wreak havoc in communities across America. Adolescents and young adults in particular are at high risk for opioid misuse and abuse after exposure during medical treatment, where other investigations show "legitimate use of prescription opioids among high school students has been associated with a 33% increase in the risk of future opioid misuse among young adults," the study notes.

Hydrocodone was the most commonly prescribed opioid, while oxycodone and codeine prescriptions remained stable from 2005 to 2015. The prescription of Tramadol grew in 2012, when it comprised 15.1% of all opioid prescriptions, according to the study.Further, despite a small decline in prescribing rates within emergency room visits, there was no observable change in rates for outpatient clinic visits in that time frame.

The rate of prescribing habits in emergency rooms for young adults and teens was "strikingly similar" to that of adult emergency department visits, Hudgins told CNN, but without the same guidelines in place to monitor prescriptions among the younger population.

"There are national guidelines on opioid prescribing for adults, and that really helps prescribers know how long, what the right duration is, and what the right opioid is, and things like that," Hudgins said. "There really aren't those guidelines, or at least not at the national level, for adolescents and young adults." Katelyn Newman is a staff writer for the Healthiest Communities division at U.S. News & World

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