Last updated: October 25, 2021
Deaths caused by overdoses of prescription narcotic painkillers have reached an epidemic state, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Looking at data from 2012, opioid painkillers contributed to 16,007 deaths. This represents a tripling of painkiller overdoses since 1999.
Many types of prescription painkillers are stronger than morphine, including hydromorphone, methadone, fentanyl, and oxycodone. The rate at which these drugs have been prescribed has soared since the 1990s, and employees who have suffered workplace accidents represent a growing portion of those given these pills by doctors.
The 1996 introduction of OxyContin onto the market marked the point at which prescription drug abuse took off. Opioids also known as narcotic painkillers present the highest addiction risks to people who take them.
OxyContin was the original brand name for a pill containing the opiate oxycodone. After its debut, reports of abuse emerged. The drug’s formulation released a steady supply of painkiller throughout the day, but addicts discovered that an intense high could be gained by crushing pills and snorting the powder.
Because of the abuse, the drug’s manufacturer, Purdue Pharma L.P., adjusted the pills to reduce its vulnerability to abuse. However, a new and potent painkiller now on the market called Zohydro does not feature this protective formulation. Its strong dose that exceeds oxycodone by five times concerns addiction experts who have criticized it for its potential to create addicts.
Workers issued these pills after workplace accidents have some legal protections that keep them from getting fired for addiction, especially if the drug use is disclosed. The problem of worker prescription drug abuse is rising due to doctors frequently prescribing the pills, even for minor injuries. Back pain accounts for many cases of doctors giving patients strong opiates although little evidence suggests that they provide long-term pain relief.
Over a seven-year period, painkiller prescriptions increased 63 percent for injured workers. Employee drug testingdata published by Quest Diagnostics showed in 2010 that workers had positive opiate readings 18 percent more often than in 2009. Between 2005 and 2009, worker opiate use increased 40 percent.
Costs are climbing for employers due to the epidemic. Employer insurance plans pay over $1 billion annually on the pills. A workplace injury in which a worker is not treated with narcotics costs an average of $13,000. When prescription painkillers are introduced into treatment, the price jumps to $39,000 on average.
Absenteeism and reduced productivity from drugged workers also cut into profits. For some workers addiction to prescription pills results. People become addicted to opiates because the drugs reduce pain perception in the brain and stimulate dopamine activity along neurotransmitters, which produces euphoria. This natural reward system within the brain gets overstimulated, and the user needs more and more of the drug over time to produce the pleasing effect. With increasing use, the body becomes dependent on the drug to activity the dopamine process. When the drug is not taken, the person experiences intense discomfort.
Workers and employers concerned about prescription drug addiction can watch for warning signs. An addiction could be developing if one or more of the following are true for the person:
- Thinking about the pills
- Taking more than directed
- Visiting more doctors to get more prescriptions
- Sourcing pills from anybody
- Using pills long term
- Refusing to talk about pill use
- Feeling abnormal
On top of employee and employer costs, abuse of prescription narcotics has deadly consequences. Addiction leads to taking more drugs, which introduces the chance of a fatal overdose.