Almost All U.S. Doctors Overprescribe Opiates: Why?

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Recent studies show that nearly all U.S. doctors tend to overprescribe opioid pain reliever drugs when they hand out prescriptions. Why? Based off of federal regulations and recommendations from both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, easily more than ninety percent of doctors overprescribe opioid-based pharmaceuticals.

The FDA-recommended dosage limit for opioid pain relievers is between three to seven days. Most doctors prescribe two to four weeks of meds to patients, even brand new patients who have never taken opiates before. In fact, according to one research report, twenty-five percent of doctors prescribe powerful, addictive, mind-altering opioid pain reliever drugs to brand new patients for at least one month. According to the National Safety Council, one month’s use of a narcotic painkiller drug is enough to cause potentially adverse changes in the brain and nervous system of a patient.

According to Dr. Donald Treater, an advisor at the National Safety Council:

“Opioids do not kill the pain. They kill people. Doctors are well-intentioned and want to help their patients, but these findings are further proof that we need more education and training if we want to treat pain most effectively.”

Dr. Treater hits the nail on the head with his statement. The lion’s share of the fault here does not lie with doctors. For the most part, doctor’s are simply following instructions from their administrations and associations, following along with the current medical standard of the day. As is the case with most problems, we have to go up the food chain to find the source.

Prescribing Trends in the 21st Century

Rx drug bottles

Our current problem with opiate addiction is such that opioid pain relievers, drugs that are supposed to help us and make our lives easier, are now responsible for more deaths in the United States than deaths from heroin, cocaine, meth, crack, marijuana, hallucinogenics, and all other drugs combined! In 2016, opiate painkillers killed more than forty thousand people, a new highest ever. Numbers have not been fully tallied for 2017 yet, but it’s not looking good.

The procedural end of doctor’s prescribing process when it comes to prescribing drugs is flawed. Eighty-five percent of doctors ask their patients if they have any history of substance abuse before they prescribe drugs, which is good, but they almost always prescribe drugs anyway regardless of the answers they get. Furthermore, only one-third of doctors ask about a patient’s potential family history of substance abuse. Only five percent of doctors offer help to patients who do actively struggle with addiction, and less than half of doctors refer addicted patients to treatment centers.

Seventy-five percent of doctors still believe that the best way to accomplish pain relief is either with morphine, oxycodone, or some hybrid, combination pain reliever. In truth though, over the counter pain relievers like ibuprofen and acetaminophen are just as good at providing pain relief without overdoing it.

Doctors erroneously prescribe powerful painkillers for back pain, headaches, and dental pain, yet no official documentation exists that indicates that opioid pain relievers are the best solution to such pains. The major problem here is a problem of misinformation and of doctors operating on old data.

The Truth in the Problem

In the late 1990s, medical administrations collaborated with pharmaceutical companies, deciding that the physical phenomena of pain were a more important thing to address and that they would address it with powerful, opiate-based pharmaceuticals. Medical administrations began handing down recommendations and suggestions to their doctors to follow suit. Moving forward into the future, we need to encourage our doctors and medical administrations to pursue other approaches to pain relief. Twenty years of addiction and more than two-hundred thousand overdose deaths should be enough to show us that opiate drugs are not a viable solution to pain.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.