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Two cars are in a serious accident. The drivers of both cars are rushed to the hospital with severe injuries. As immediately as possible after routine procedure, both patients are administered either an oral or intravenous dose of morphine to relieve the pain. Analgesic and relaxing, their pain subsides and they likely fall asleep. Both patients need surgery to heal internal wounds or close up exposed ones. For the pain which will result afterwards, the doctor informs them, they will be prescribed a prescription painkiller. Likely they will receive something like Hydrocodone, Oxycotin, Dilaudid, or Percocet. Each of these medications are morphine based, designating them as opioids. While they are in the hospital, their intravenous pain medications and oral pain medications will be monitored. Upon discharge, they will each receive specific instructions on taking pain medication and rehabilitating their body at home. One patient goes on to heal fine and doesn’t take another opioid medication until there is another serious issue with pain. The other patient will heal from their original injury but may not heal from their pain. In the process, they’ll develop an addiction to opioid painkillers. In the wake of the opioid epidemic sweeping the nation, thousands of family members want to know the answer to one simple question: why?

New research published in the journal JAMA Surgery sought to answer this question. Though the number seems small, the amount of overdose deaths which could result has drastic implications- six percent of people who receive opioid painkillers for post-surgery rehabilitation continue using their prescription medication for at least three months post-procedure. Researchers found that the type of surgery or severity of the pain had little to do with the likelihood of using the prescription painkillers outside of their recommended expiration. The issue, researchers discovered, is a lack of screening for high risk factors which would contribute to the likelihood of substance abuse. Researchers called this “addressable patient-level” risk factors. Live Science reported on the findings. Increased risk for opioid abuse post-surgery had the highest percentages among patients who:

  • Smoked cigarettes
  • Drank alcohol
  • Had pre-existing substance abuse problems
  • Had anxiety
  • Were previously chronic pain patients

Opioid addiction can happen without a patient’s knowing that they are predisposed to developing a chemical dependency problem. Thousands of American have faced this problem in recent years, which has greatly contributed to the ongoing crisis with opioid painkillers, synthetic opioid painkillers including fentanyl, and a turn to heroin.