Half of Those Prescribed Opiates for a Month Still Taking Them 3 Years Later

opiate2If you are taking opiates for pain, how long can you take them before you become dependent or addicted to them?  Those who have undergone major surgery, or had a serious bone-breaking accident, have likely known the benefit that opiates can provide for pain relief. As an Addictionologist who treats primarily opiate addicts who are mostly in their 20’s, I have seen all too often the story of a dental procedure or relatively minor surgery that resulted in a prescription for opiate pain killers that then led to an opiate addiction and, ultimately, heroin when the availability of pills disappeared.

The express scripts study, “A nation in pain,” (which you can find here… ) looked at more than 36 million opioid prescriptions issued to 6.8 million Americans from 2009-2013.  Here were some of the findings:

  • Half (50%) of the group taking opiates for an average of 3 years or longer were on short-acting opioids (much more likely to cause an addiction).
  • Younger adults (20-44) filled more prescriptions.
  • 60% used these opiate with other medications (1/3 were benzodiazepines, which are known to be a fatal combination with opioids).


Those who have become addicted or dependent on opioids probably need help getting off of them.  If you wish to try this at home, start by having someone else hold your medications, then reduce the dose by 10-20% every 1-4 weeks until you get off of them.  Most addicts will need the support of addiction counselors, a treatment program, or an addiction specialist.

If you have had surgery or an injury that resulted in a prescription for opioids, ask your doctor what is the usual length of time you would need to use opiates. If you feel that you are now continuing to have pain past that expected time frame, get re-evaluated by your doctor or surgeon. Perhaps something is wrong and perhaps you are starting to become dependent on the opiates.  Withdrawal symptoms can  first can feel like the pain of your surgery or injury, making you think you need more opiates, when, in fact, you need to wean off.

If you have had trouble getting off of opiates in the past and need a legitimate prescription, have someone else hold it and dispense to you only as prescribed.

We physicians and nurses were trained the past two decades that pain was a vital sign, and to not pay attention to that pain was a form of neglect.  We undoubtedly have ignored the huge down side to the use of opiates for pain that has become chronic.


Dr. Paul


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