Addiction & Substance Overuse

Millions of Unused Painkillers May Contribute to Opioid Epidemic

More than half of opioids prescribed to patients following surgical tooth extraction – such as the removal of impacted wisdom teeth – were left unused by patients, according to new research.

The researchers, from the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine and School of Dental Medicine, say the surplus is troubling given the ongoing opioid epidemic and evidence showing that individuals who abuse prescription opioids often use leftover pills that were prescribed for friends or family members. The study, published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence, suggests the availability of prescription disposal kiosks in pharmacies and small financial incentives may increase proper disposal of opioids by more than 20 percent.

“When translated to the broad U.S. population, our findings suggest that more than 100 million opioid pills prescribed to patients following surgical removal of impacted wisdom teeth are not used, leaving the door open for possible abuse or misuse by patients, or their friends or family,” said lead author Brandon C. Maughan, MD, MHS, MSHP, an emergency physician and health services researcher at The Lewin Group, a health policy consulting firm, who conducted the study while serving as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Clinical Scholar at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “Given the increasing concern about prescription opioid abuse in the United States, all prescribers – including physicians, oral surgeons and dental clinicians – have a responsibility to limit opioid exposure, to explain the risks of opioid misuse, and educate patients on proper drug disposal.”

In the study, researchers examined prescription opioid use for 79 patients after dental impaction surgery, and how a small financial incentive and information about a pharmacy-based drug disposal program would affect patients’ willingness to properly dispose of unused medications. Researchers also tested the effectiveness of using a text message-based platform to collect data on pain and prescription medication use.

During enrollment, participants received a debit card preloaded with $10. Surveys assessing pain levels and medication use were delivered via text message every day for the first week following surgery, and again on days 14 and 21 following surgery. For each survey completed, the participant would receive an addition $3 credit on the debit card (a possible $27 total). Patients who completed a follow-up health interview received an additional $10.

Just 24 hours after surgery, patients reported an average pain score of 5 out of 10 while taking pain medication. By the second day, more than half (51 percent) reported a low pain score (0-3 out of 10), and by the fifth day, almost 80 percent had a low pain score.


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