In 2014, 1.9 million Americans 12 and older abused or were dependent on prescription pain relievers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health. To put this in perspective, in 2012 health care providers wrote 259 million opioid prescriptions—enough for every adult in the U.S. to have a bottle of pills.

Tackling the problem

Preventing and reducing prescription drug abuse and overdose is the priority behind Prescription Drug Overdose: Prevention for States program, which supports 16 states by strengthening their prescription drug monitoring programs, improving opioid prescribing through health systems and insurer innovations, implementing effective prevention in the hardest-hit communities and identifying new and emerging drug overdose issues.

The focus is on preventing opioid overdose by improving clinical practices and patient safety. Currently, the CDC is developing guidelines for the prescribing of opioids to treat chronic pain. These guidelines should give primary care providers—the largest prescribers of opioids—the guidance and tools they need to work with their patients to manage pain in the safest, most effective manner. A Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, which will be released in 2016, is the product of input from diverse stakeholders, including medical organizations, patients, patient advocacy groups and federal partners.

Finding balance

Opioids are powerful drugs that are important to managing pain but also have serious risks. We want to ensure patients have access to safe, effective treatment while reducing the number of people who misuse, abuse or overdose from opioid pain medications. We understand that patients with cancer or acute pain have very real concerns about losing access to medications. The guidelines will empower physicians to develop individual treatment plans that work best for the needs of their patients.

"In 2012, the number of people abusing or dependent on opioids was an estimated 2.3 million, yet the maximum number of people who could have accessed MAT in 2012 was only 1.4 million, leaving nearly 1 million people without access to treatment."

The above efforts are crucial to preventing prescription drug overdose and helping keep people from becoming dependent on prescription opioids in the first place. People already misusing opioids need help and must be offered appropriate treatment. Expanding access to opioid use disorder treatment services like Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) protocol is necessary. In 2012, the number of people abusing or dependent on opioids was an estimated 2.3 million, yet the maximum number of people who could have accessed MAT in 2012 was only 1.4 million, leaving nearly 1 million people without access to treatment.

Finally, we need to expand access to naloxone to prevent overdose deaths. Naloxone is a life-saving drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, but only if administered in time. Many communities already support the development and distribution of this promising intervention to reduce opioid overdose deaths, but additional access to naloxone and training for those administering it are needed.

You can help prevent and reduce prescription drug overdose on your own. Start by asking your doctor about the risks of opioids before filling your prescription. If you have chronic pain, ask your health care provider about alternative care. And if you suspect someone close to you has an addiction to pain medication, contact SAMHSA’s Treatment Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.