Last month the opioid epidemic was declared a public health emergency, and the statistics are sobering: 33,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2015, according to statistics gathered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To put that in perspective, 91 people die each day from an overdose.
Amidst the discussions about how to handle the opioid epidemic, a topic of discussion has been the role of prescription painkillers as a "gateway" to addiction. In August, CBS reported that more than one in three Americans were prescribed opioids in 2015.
But according to a new study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association today, over-the-counter pain relievers work just as well as opioids in certain cases. In short, they successfully relieve pain without posing the risk of the patient developing an addiction to opioids.
Participants with acute pain and injuries in their arms and legs were treated with either two over-the-counter pain meds or the opioid medications that are typically prescribed for these types of injuries. Two hours later, all participants reported similar levels of pain.
A caveat of the study is that it solely examined patients with arm and leg injuries, but it certainly is a sign that similar studies should be conducted for other conditions that are frequently treated with opioids.
The participants who weren't given opioids took a combination of ibuprofen and Tylenol — the non-addictive pain relievers that many of us keep on hand to treat menstrual cramps and headaches.
Like so many others, I've been prescribed opioids over the past year and didn't think twice because I assumed it must be necessary if my doctor handed me the prescription. The results of this study are a reminder of why it's important to ask our doctors questions if and when we're prescribed opioids — or any other medication that has the potential for addiction, such as stimulants and benzodiazepines.
Specifically, it can't hurt to ask if we're possibly being over-medicated and if there's an option that doesn't pose the same risk as prescription opioids.
It's a tragedy when anyone develops an opioid addiction, but it's heartbreaking that some of these addictions could be prevented by using over-the-counter pain relievers instead of opioids.
If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, please call the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for free and confidential information.