One in 10 High School Seniors Have Used Narcotic Painkillers

MONDAY Aug. 3, 2009 -- Pain relief isn't the main reason why one in 10 high school seniors have tried opioid drugs, a new United States study finds.

The most common reasons included relaxation, feeling good or getting high, experimentation and then pain relief. Students used drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, hydromorphone, meperidine, morphine and codeine without a prescription, researchers say.

"The results of this study provide compelling evidence that adolescents have a wide range of motives for using prescription opioids non-medically, and these motives should be carefully considered in efforts to reduce this behavior," said study author Sean Esteban McCabe, a research associate professor at the Substance Abuse Research Center of the University of Michigan.

Other studies have found many adolescents get opioids from their own previous prescriptions, McCabe said. "These results suggest that appropriate pain management and careful therapeutic monitoring could contribute to reductions in the non-medical use of prescription opioids among adolescents," he said.

The report is published in the August issue of the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

For the study, McCabe's team collected data on opioid use among 12,441 U.S. high school seniors (most aged 18 years). The students were asked if they used opioids and their reasons for doing so.

The researchers found that 12.3 percent of the students said they had used opioids for non-medical reasons; 8 percent said they had used them during the past year.

The top reasons for using these drugs were to relax or relieve tension (56.4 percent), to feel good or get high (53.5 percent), to experiment (52.4 percent), to relieve physical pain (44.8 percent) or to have a good time with friends (29.5 percent), McCabe said.

However, students who used prescription opioids only for pain relief were less likely to drink heavily or use other drugs, he noted.

Dr. Adam Bisaga, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and addiction psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, said more than 90 percent of these students used these drugs for reasons other than to treat pain. "That is for their psychoactive effects, either to achieve euphoria or to relieve psychological distress," he explained.

"Not surprisingly, those who use opioids for their psychoactive effects were more likely to use other substances with addictive potential and show early signs of substance use disorder," Bisaga said.

These data indicate that use of prescription opioids to achieve psychoactive effects is highly prevalent among high schoolers, and puts them at risk to develop more serious drug-related problems, Bisaga added.

"This suggests that adolescents should be routinely screened for prescription painkiller use, particularly those that are regular users of alcohol, marijuana or cigarettes, and those who show signs of psychological distress," he said.

"Early identification of individuals at risk, and development of preventive and treatment strategies appropriate for these individuals, is likely to impede the development of addictive disorders and their devastating psychological, medical and social consequences," Bisaga said.

Another expert, Dr. Thomas Kosten, the Jay H. Waggoner chair and a professor of psychiatry, pharmacology & neuroscience at Baylor Medical College in Houston, said many of those who use these drugs for pain relief "may not represent persons with addictive behaviors who will need, benefit or accept opiate addiction treatments."

Kosten said, "These adolescents without addictive behaviors would benefit from some education about the need for professional medical supervision when using opiates because of the potential for complications including drug interactions and dependence, tolerance and withdrawal syndromes."

More information

For more information on drug abuse, visit the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Posted: August 2009


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