The risk of teens misusing prescription pain relievers appears to peak around age 16, earlier than many experts thought, according to a new study by Michigan State University researchers.
The results, based on nationwide surveys of nearly 120,000 U.S. teens, suggest prevention programs may need to be introduced in childhood and early adolescence, said James C. Anthony, Ph.D., of MSU’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.
Getting out information on the risks of prescription painkillers has become all the more important. Earlier this year, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the death toll from overdoses of prescription painkillers has more than tripled in the past decade.
“While much of the previous thinking was that misuse of these drugs emerged in the final year of high school and during the college-age years, we found that for adolescents the peak risk of starting to misuse these painkillers generally occurs earlier, not during the post-secondary school years,” Anthony said.
The researchers analyzed data from the 2004 through 2008 National Surveys on Drug Use and Health to identify when young people are most likely to start using prescription pain relievers to get high or for other unapproved uses.
The results show about 1 in 60 young people between 12 and 21 years old starts misusing prescription pain relievers each year. Peak risk is at about 16 years, when roughly 1 in 30 to 40 young people start to use painkillers to get high or for other reasons not intended by the prescriber.
“Getting a firm grasp of when the first onset occurs is very important when we try to take public health action to prevent first occurrence,” Anthony said. “With the peak risk at age 16 years and a notable acceleration in risk between ages 13 and 14 years, any strict focus on college students or 12th graders might be an example of too little too late.”
The results reveal a need to strengthen prescribing guidelines and introduce early school-based prevention programs, he said.
He added there also is an opportunity to work with pharmaceutical specialists who sometimes can reformulate these drugs so their effects are blunted when misused.
But it all starts with the prescription. He suggests prescribers should first try nonopioid pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, for kids. When opioid pain killers are prescribed for adolescents — or the drugs are in the reach of teens — the number of tablets should be limited or kept under lock and key, he advised.
“Patients in transient pain are often given a larger opioid prescription than is needed,” he said. “It can end up stacked in the medicine cabinet, available to anyone in or visiting the household.”
The study was published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Source: Michigan State University