Sovereign Health Group Blog

The problem of hoarding and sharing painkillers

Posted on 08-30-2016 Posted in Medicine, Substance Abuse - 1 Comments

prescribed opioid painkillers

A study by John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found 6 out of 10 adults prescribed opioid painkillers kept, rather than disposed of, leftover pills. In addition, studies show individuals routinely give prescription painkillers to friends and family members. These findings indicate physicians overprescribe addictive pain medications, and patients keep such medications in reserve – just in case they require pain relief in the future. This excess emboldens them to self-diagnose, not only themselves, but others.

Prescribing chaos?

The study appears in the June edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Internal Medicine. The study involved roughly 600,000 Medicare patients. On average, 15 percent received an opioid prescription after being discharged from the hospital. Of these, over 40 percent continued to take the drugs three months after they were discharged. The study also involved 1,000 patients who were prescribed painkillers within the last year. Over one-fifth of these admitted to sharing medications with friends and family.

The study was reported on by UPI, Salon, the Guardian and carried on the John Hopkins website. Mary Elizabeth Williams penned the Salon piece. She said she grew alarmed when she asked her physician how to safely dispose of her excess pain medicine, and her physician replied no one had ever asked her that in 20 years. At the end of her piece, Williams questions why physicians don’t take the extra two minutes to explain the dangers associated with prescription drugs as well as the proper disposal procedures for leftovers.

The Guardian quotes Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, the Hopkins scientist who authored the study: “There is a growing awareness about overprescribing and the role it’s playing in the opioid epidemic, but I think it takes a while for the medical community to change.”

A culture of keeping and sharing

Why do patients hold onto prescription opioid painkillers long after their pain has subsided, and why they feel is it okay to share with others? With respect to keeping unused medication, the answer may have to do with the CDC’s guideline for prescribing painkillers and with pharmacies cracking down on who they believe are individuals who are abusing the system.

The guideline lists 12 items physicians should consider before prescribing opioids for pain. The gist is for physicians to use opioids as a last resort. Nonpharmacological remedies should first be explored. When a physician does prescribe opioids, he or she must explain in detail to the patient the inherent dangers of these medications.

According to individuals with chronic pain, as well-intentioned as the guideline is, it has created a backlash against individuals who rely on opioid pain therapy in order to function. In Tampa, Florida, the chain pharmacy, Walgreens, refused to fill a patient’s opioid prescription at any of its locations. The patient, Patti DeSalvo, developed severe pain and then lupus following a car accident. Walgreens, in response to DeSalvo’s story being carried on the local news, said in a statement, “We have looked into this matter. The pharmacists consulted with the patient’s prescriber and, using their professional judgment, acted in the patient’s best interest.”

Notes Dr. Lynn Webster, “When we work against the people we are set up to serve, we are doing a great disservice to our cause and the people who rely on us most.” He is referring to the DEA’s reclassification of hydrocodone as a Schedule II narcotic. The DEA’s rules prevent patients from refilling their hydrocodone prescriptions over the phone. Patients must also see a physician every 90 days. And according to a survey by the National Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain Associate conducted after DEA rule change:

  • 88 percent of patients with chronic pain reported feeling they have been denied the right to access pain medication
  • 71 percent report being switched to less effective pain drugs because their physicians were afraid of legal repercussions
  • Over 50 percent felt stigmatized for using hydrocodone
  • Over 25 percent reported suicidal ideation as a result of being denied the painkiller

All of which can lead to a person storing up on medication.

Sovereign Health operates two treatment facilities in Florida: Fort Myers and Pompano Beach. We specialize in treating all substance use disorders (SUDs). Our clinicians treat the physical ravages of addiction as well as the underlying psychological factors that fuel it. Contact our 24/7 helpline for more information on our prescription drug addiction program.

About the author:

Darren Fraser is a content writer for Sovereign Health. He worked two and half years as reporter and researcher for The Yomiuri Shimbun until they realized he did not read, speak or write Japanese and fired him. Undeterred, he channels his love of research into unearthing stories that provide hope to those dealing with addiction and mental illness. Darren loves the Montreal Canadiens hockey club and horror films and would prefer to enjoy these from the comforts of his family’s farm in Quebec. For more information about this media, contact the author at

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