Addiction to prescription medications, especially prescribed painkillers, is a growing problem. A new study will evaluate if individuals addicted to opioid painkillers, such as Vicodin and OxyContin, can effectively be treated with drug treatments currently used for heroin addiction.

The addiction has become a national concern as authorities estimate 2.2 million Americans, per year, will begin to use prescription pain relievers for non-medical uses. This incidence rate surpasses the number of new marijuana users (2.1 million), according to the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

In that survey, more than 6 million Americans reported using prescription drugs for non-medical uses in the previous month, which is more than the number abusing cocaine, heroin, hallucinogens and inhalants, combined.

The new study is part of a national effort involving 11 clinical research centers to evaluate treatment strategies. Known as the Prescription Opiate Addiction Treatment Study, or POATS, it is being led by the National Drug Abuse Treatment Clinical Trials Network, under the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA).

The research is in response to the growing national problem of prescription drug abuse that has resulted in higher emergency room admissions and potentially devastating impacts on millions of Americans and their families, according to Stephen Dominy, MD, director of the Division of Substance Abuse and Addiction Medicine at San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center, who is co-leading the UCSF portion of the study.

“The abuse of prescription opiates has become a very serious problem in our society, but until now, there have been no large-scale studies to evaluate how to treat those addictions,” Dominy said. “This study hopes to assess whether current opiate dependence therapies are effective, as well as the role of counseling in treatment outcomes.”

Abusers of prescribed opiates seem to fit a very different profile from traditional patients in heroin dependence programs, according to Yong Song, PhD, co-principal investigator for the UCSF site study. These users tend to be younger, he said, with fewer other dependency issues, such as alcohol or cocaine, and often come from a middle-class background.

“Opiate addiction is well studied in heroin dependence, but very little is known about what treatments are effective with this group of people,” Song said. “We think this is a different demographic, but it’s not well studied. This trial will confirm whether they really do look different.”

Source: University of California – San Francisco