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Study: More than 10% of teens treated in ER admit to misuse of prescription painkillers

November 5, 2013
by Shannon Brys, Associate Editor
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A recent study by the University of Michigan has found that more than 10 percent of teenagers and young adults treated in an emergency room admit to misusing prescription painkillers or sedatives.

The study asked 2,135 individuals between the ages of 14 and 20 years old about their use of “prescription opioids fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone, buprenorphine, and suboxone, and the sedatives Valium, Serepax, Ativan, Xanax, Librium, Rohypnol, and GHB, among others,” according to PsychCentral.

The results showed that 10.4 percent of those surveyed admitted to misusing a prescription painkiller or sedative at least once in the past year, which included:

  • Taking the drug to get high
  • Taking a higher dose than was prescribed
  • Taking drugs prescribed to someone else  

Researchers found that the majority of the use was illicit, meaning that the users had no prescriptions for these drugs on their medical records.

School-based studies of this kind have been conducted before and usually find “rates of misuse among young people to be around 8 percent,” according to the article. However, researchers say this is the first time that this issue has been studied in a venue such as this—an emergency department.

Other findings from the study include:

  • The young adults who admitted to misusing prescription painkillers were more likely to receive an intravenous opioid painkiller during the ER visit.
  • Those who misused these drugs “were significantly more likely to have also abused alcohol and non-prescription drugs such as cough medicine, or to have used marijuana, in the past year.”
  • These individuals were also more likely to have been a passenger of a drunk driver.

From this point, the plan is to continue the study in other emergency departments to further validate the findings. Additionally, Lauren Whiteside, M.D., who led the study during her U-M Injury Center postdoctoral research fellowship, said it’s important for ER physicians to be aware of the risk that patients could be seeking drugs for misuse or to give to others when they step foot in the ER.

Also, because of the study results she believes that ERs could be an effective venue to screen young people for prescription drug misuse, and to intervene early and address the issue before serious problems arise.

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