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Future Health

Even Legit Use of Painkillers Puts Teens at Risk

November 3, 2015 

Researchers have discovered that high school students who legitimately use an opioid prescription are one-third more likely to abuse the drug by age 23 than those with no history of the prescription.

University of Michigan investigators found teens abuse OxyContin, Vicodin and other prescription pain relievers to get high, relax, or feel good after leaving high school. This happens despite adolescents’ strong disapproval of marijuana use, researchers say.

Researchers believe the findings are timely as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has recently decided to approve use of OxyContin for children ages 11 to 16.

Although counterintuitive, the risk of future abuse is concentrated among adolescents who have little or no history of illegal drug use and who strongly disapprove of drug abuse.

Experts say this may be at least partly explained by the novelty of drug use effects as a prescription pain reliever is likely to be their initial experience with an addictive substance.

“Most likely, the initial experience of pain relief is pleasurable and this safe experience may reduce perceived danger,” said the study’s lead author Dr. Richard Miech, research professor at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research.

“A pleasurable and safe initial experience with a drug is a central factor in theories of who goes on to misuse drugs.”

In contrast, among adolescents with more extensive drug experience, the legitimate use of a prescription pain reliever may be expected to make relatively less of an impression compared to other controlled substances they have used.

“Although these experienced individuals may go on to misuse prescription pain relievers, such misuse does not appear to result from an introduction to pain relievers through a legitimate prescription,” Miech said.

Researchers analyzed data from the Monitoring the Future study, a nationally representative sample of 6,220 individuals surveyed in 12th grade and then followed up through ages 19-23. Participants indicated if they misused opioids in the last 12 months.

Researchers say parents should be informed of the study results as they may opt for non-opioid options for painful conditions. If necessary, pain relievers could be prescribed as a second option if non-opioid treatments are insufficient.

Miech and colleagues say the data does not have information on the dose, length, or effectiveness for opioid prescriptions. In addition, teens who dropped out of high school by 12th grade — a segment previous research indicates has higher drug use levels — are not factored.

Rick Nauert PhD