The risk of misusing prescription painkillers peaks earlier than many experts thought – at age 16 — according to a nationwide survey by Michigan State University researchers. At that age, about one in 30 youths start using painkillers to get high.
“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,” said leader researcher James C. Anthony of MSU’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics. “We suspect many physicians, other prescribing clinicians and public health professionals, will share our surprise in this finding.”
The MSU study used data collected from 138,000 U.S. adolescents by the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health from 2004 to 2008.
Roughly one in 60 young people between the ages of 12 and 21 begin using prescription pain medications each year, outside of the scope of their intended us. The risk of abuse peaks at age 16, when an estimated 2.8% become new users. Risk appears to be lowest from ages 12 to 14, and from ages 19 to 21.
Researchers say the findings imply that anti-drug abuse programs in high school should begin before the senior year.
“With a 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,” they wrote.
A number of prevention programs are sorely needed, according to the researchers. Not only do prescribing guidelines for clinicians need strengthening, but early school prevention programs need to be implemented. Examples of school-based programs include alcohol and tobacco prevention initiatives and peer-resistance drug programs, like the “Just Say No” campaign.
Researchers also say that non-opioid pain relievers, such as ibuprofen, can often be effective at reducing pain, making the use of narcotic painkillers unnecessary. Additionally, if opioids are prescribed for adolescents or teens, the pills should be kept under lock and key and the number of pills should be limited.
“Patients in transient pain are often given a larger opioid prescription than is needed. It can end up stacked in the medicine cabinet, available to anyone in or visiting the household,” said Anthony.
The study is published in the JAMA Network publication, Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.