by Gabriella Pinto-Coelho
A new study out of the University of Michigan has shed light on some disturbing facts around teenagers and opioid abuse: high school students who are prescribed opioid painkillers are 33% more likely to abuse these drugs by age 23 when compared to their counterparts who did not have a prescription for opioids during their high school years.
Surprisingly, the study found that teens with the highest risk of prescription drug abuse were those with little or no history of illegal drug use and who felt strongly against drug use. Researchers hypothesized that, given their disapproval of drugs, prescription painkillers might be these teens’ first exposure to an addictive substance.
Their initial experience of pain relief is pleasurable and perceived as safe; this experience of safety and euphoria in first exposure to a drug are believed to be factors that contribute to drug misuse and abuse. On the other end of the spectrum, teens with a history of drug use were less affected by their prescriptions for opioids; although they might go on to abuse prescription pain relievers later in life, there appears to be little association with their introduction to the drugs in their adolescence through a legitimate prescription.
These results emerge amid the FDA’s new approval of OxyContin for children as young as 11. The drug has been approved for use in pediatric patients who have not benefitted enough from other pain management alternatives and who can already tolerate a minimum dose of 20 mg of oxycodone, OxyContin’s active drug ingredient, for five consecutive days.
Although OxyContin was reformulated in 2010 to make it more difficult to abuse, there is no doubt that long-term use of the drug can lead to dependence. It appears that the FDA approved the use of this drug for younger patients in cases of extreme pain, such as those undergoing cancer treatment.
Another opioid approved for use for patients as young as 11 is the Duragesic patch, which releases fentanyl. Given research on the effects of opioids on both adults and adolescents, we can only hope that providers are using these drugs as a last resort for the pediatric population.