Many ER Patients Don’t Know Prescription Painkillers Are Addictive

September 30, 2015 Updated: October 4, 2015

About a quarter of emergency department patients don’t know prescription opiods can be addictive, according to a new study.

The remainder of patients interviewed say the opposite—that they think painkillers can lead to addiction. The findings suggest there is a range of beliefs, attitudes, and even misconceptions about this potentially dangerous class of pain medicine.

In the United States, prescription drug abuse is a national epidemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdoses cause more deaths than motor vehicle crashes among people ages 25 to 64, and half of those deaths are related to prescription drugs.

Opioids are one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the emergency department.
— Michael Conrardy, study author

“Opioids are one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the emergency department,” says Michael Conrardy, who was primary author of the study. “The findings of our study indicate that we need to have more nuanced, open-ended conversations with patients about their understanding of opioid addiction and their own perceived risks.”

For the new paper, published in Pain Medicine, researchers analyzed responses from a larger randomized controlled trial that investigated patient knowledge of opioids. The study included 174 patients who were interviewed a few days after visiting the emergency department and receiving a prescription for hydrocodone-acetaminophen, an opioid for treating acute pain that is commonly marketed under brand names such as Vicodin and Norco.

The study focused on responses to one question in particular: “Do you think that the type of pain medicine that you were prescribed can be addictive?”

“Rather than giving straight yes or no answers, about a third of patients used personal experience to explain whether they thought the drug was addictive,” Conrardy says. “For example, some talked about their experiences with side effects and others referenced things they’d heard from people they knew. We had all this rich data and thought it was a good idea to probe deeper.”

A subset of patients—about 17 percent—didn’t respond yes, no, or “I don’t know” to the question about whether opioids could be addictive. Instead, they said “it depends.”

“Saying ‘it depends’ is not necessarily incorrect,” Conrardy says. “Opioid addiction is a really complicated issue impacted by a wide variety of factors. Studies have found that some individuals, such as those who have certain psychiatric conditions, have a higher risk of becoming addicted to opioids.”

The Emergency 30 Medicine Foundation and Purdue Pharma supported the work.

This article was originally published by Northwestern University. Republished via under Creative Commons License 4.0.