Researchers found that more than one third of U.S. adults were prescribed the medications in 2015 and many also misused the drugs.
“A very large proportion and large number of adults use these medications in a given year,” says study author Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse in Bethesda, Md. “I was still a bit surprised that 38% or about 92 million people used prescription opioids in 2015.”
Compton and his colleagues write in the Annals of Internal Medicine that limited data on the prescription of opioids and their abuse are available despite the number of deaths from drug overdoses in the U.S. having quadrupled between 1999 and 2015.1
For the new study, the researchers analyzed data from 51,200 adults collected in 2015 during face-to-face interviews for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
Based on those interviews, the researchers estimate about 38% of U.S. adults were prescribed an opioid in 2015.
People who were between ages 18 and 49 years, men or college graduates were less likely to have been prescribed opioids than those who were older, female or not college graduates.
About 5% of U.S. adults were misusing opioids by not following a doctor’s orders. Misuse could range from not using the drugs as directed or using them without a prescription.
The researchers also estimate that about 1% of adults, or about 1.9 million Americans, had an opioid use disorder. A person with a use disorder may experience withdrawal when they stop opioids, for example.
Opioid misuse and use disorders were more common among people with lower family incomes, without health insurance or without jobs.
About 64% of the survey participants who had misused opioids said they did so most recently to relieve pain. About 41% said they got the drugs from family or friends.
Based on data from private insurance, Compton tells Reuters Health, future surveys may show a decline in opioid prescriptions.
“We have seen since 2010 about a 20% decline, but that’s not a major reduction,” he says.
Dr. Karen Lasser, who wrote an editorial accompanying the new study, says people should know the risks associated with opioids.2
“Part of the problem has to do with the broken state of primary care,” says Lasser of Boston Medical Center and the Boston University School of Medicine. “People are having trouble accessing primary care due to the shortage of primary care providers.”