How the Road to Opioid Addiction Can Start in the Dentist’s Office - dental officeWith the subject of opioid addiction and the opioid crisis appearing in headlines with increasing frequency, it can no longer be ignored.

According to statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids were directly responsible for killing a record 33,000 people in 2015. Close to half of all deaths due to opioid overdoses were linked to a prescription opioid.

Leading Causes of Death by Age Group Statistics

In 2015, unintentional injury was the leading cause of death by age group for the population of the United States up to age 45. Among those aged 15-24 and 25-34, suicide was the second leading cause of death.

Why would the number of suicides be significant with respect to opioid addiction? Because drug overdose deaths are included in this data. When a person commits suicide by taking a drug, it is counted in the suicide statistics.

Dentists Prescribing Medications

When most people think about prescription medications, the person they imagine holding the prescription pad is a medical doctor. It wouldn’t occur to many of us that dentists can (and do) write prescriptions for medications as part of their practice.

Along with prescriptions for antibiotics to treat infections and drugs to treat specific oral health conditions, dentists prescribe benzodiazepines for anxious patients. They also prescribe opioid pain medications like Vicodin and Percocet for tooth extractions.

For approximately 3.5 million people annually, mainly young adults, having their wisdom teeth removed is a common dental procedure. Many patients recover following their procedure with no issues.

This is not the case for all dental patients, however. This relatively simple procedure can, in some cases, open the door for an opioid addiction.

Dentists and Prescription Opioids

When a patient undergoes wisdom tooth extraction, many dentists will prescribe narcotic pain medication for 30 days. The patient may only need pain relief half that time (or less), and likely will not need to take a powerful opioid for the entire time they are healing from surgery.

Dentists have been driven to prescribe these types of strong pain medications for post-surgery pain due to a number of factors, including:

  • Anecdotal observations
  • Expert opinion
  • Practical experience
  • Patient expectations and demands

The results of a South Carolina data review (2012-2013) found that almost all dentists (99.9 percent) prescribed opioids as part of their practice. The medications were filled as initial prescriptions, as opposed to refilled ones. Hydrocodone (76.1 percent) and oxycodone (12.2 percent) were the opioid medications most frequently prescribed by dentists. The data review also revealed that patients younger than age 21 received more than 11 percent of prescriptions for opioids written by dentists.

How an Opioid Addiction Can Start in the Dentist’s Office

A dental patient undergoes a wisdom tooth extraction. The dentist prescribes 30 days’ worth of an opioid pain medication. Dental patients may be seen for a follow-up check after their surgery, but not until the point where they would no longer be taking pain medication. The dentist (and the patient) want to ensure that pain following the surgery can be managed appropriately.

The patient may only need the opioid pain medication for 2-5 days following the dental surgery. After that point, the series of events leading toward an opioid addiction can unfold in different manners.

Continuous Opioid Users

For some people, the ability of opioids to numb physical pain as well as make them feel relaxed and calm leads to them finishing the bottle of pills they receive from the dentist even though they have healed from their surgery.

The next stop is to visit their doctor to complain of pain from another health problem to get more prescription opioids. Over time, more opioid pain medication will be needed to achieve the same effect (tolerance). A person would need to keep going to the doctor or Emergency Room complaining of pain in order to keep getting prescriptions.

“Opioid Medication Makes Me Feel Good”

Some people will take the pain medication after surgery and notice the opioid’s euphoric effect. They keep the extra medication and start using it when they want to feel better emotionally. This might start off on a casual basis and then become more regular over time.

The person who starts using prescription medications in this way may feel that the medicine is theirs to use if they feel they need it. They may not realize that using the medication for a purpose other than for which it was intended can lead to long-term problems.

Others Borrowing Leftover Medication

The road to addiction can also start in the dentist’s office by other young adults in the family finding the leftover medication and taking it themselves. This is potentially dangerous, since the dosage was specified for someone else, as well as being illegal.

The young person who experiments with prescription opioids may decide to start buying pills from friends or on the street so that they can continue using. They aren’t equipped to know whether what they are being sold is what is being represented to them, which adds to the danger of this type of addiction.

No matter how an opioid addiction starts, help is available. Summit BHC’s addiction treatment facilities offer caring, compassionate solutions to clients and their families.

Contact us today if you or your loved one is ready to reach out for help.
We can start you on the road to recovery.

Dentists Work To Ease Patients’ Pain With Fewer Opioids. NPR. Retrieved July, 2017.
How Wisdom Teeth are Fueling the Opioid Epidemic. Ozy Media. Retrieved July, 2017.