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The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of Long-Term Prescription Painkiller Users and Their Household Members

As the nation struggles to address the ongoing prescription painkiller and heroin abuse and overdose epidemic, The Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of Long-Term Prescription Painkiller Users and Their Household Members takes a closer look at those who are long-term users of prescription painkillers to better understand from their perspective what some of the drawbacks and benefits of the drugs are, as well as how they have impacted their lives. The survey explores how these long-term users started taking the drugs, their interactions with medical providers, their concerns and experiences with addiction, and their views of efforts to stem the abuse of painkillers. The survey was conducted among adults 18 and over who they themselves have taken strong prescription painkillers for a period of two months or more1 at some time in the past two years, other than to treat pain from cancer or terminal illness. In addition, the survey also included household members of long-term users in order to capture their unique insight into how the drug use has impacted the individual. Some of the key findings from this survey are noted below.

Long-Term Users Say They Started for Medical Reasons and Discussed Risks with Providers
  • Nearly all long-term users of prescription painkillers say they started the painkillers with a prescription from a doctor and that they started taking them for chronic pain (44 percent), for pain after a surgery (25 percent) or for pain after an accident or injury (25 percent).
  • Majorities say their doctor talked to them about the possibility of addiction or dependence, avoiding alcohol or other medications, and other ways to manage pain, but 61 percent say there was no discussion about a plan for getting off the painkillers. Still, a large majority (75 percent) say they think their doctor provided enough information on the risk of addiction and other side effects associated with prescription painkillers.
Disability and Poor Health Are Common Among Long-Term Users, Most Say Drugs Have Improved Life and Are Concerned About Crackdown
  • They are a group that reports significant health issues such as a debilitating disability or chronic disease (70 percent), only fair or poor physical health (42 percent), or taking four or more prescription drugs (57 percent).
  • A majority of long-term prescription painkiller users (57 percent) say it has made their quality of life better, but one in six (16 percent) say it has made it worse.
  • With the recent attention prescription painkillers have received in light of the epidemic of abuse and overdose, two-thirds (67 percent) of long-term users say they are concerned that efforts to decrease the number of people abusing prescription painkillers will make it more difficult for them to access them.
Some Report Non-Medical Use, Addiction or Dependence, or Other Misuse
  • While nearly all long-term users say they use the drugs to relieve pain, some also report that a major reason they take them is “for fun or to get high” (20 percent), “to deal with day-to-day stress” (14 percent), or “to relax or relieve tension” (10 percent). Only three percent of long-term users say that when they started, it was for recreational reasons.
  • Sizeable shares also report:
    • being physically dependent or addicted to the painkillers (34 percent) (a group explored in detail in Section 2),
    • they have taken prescription painkillers that were not prescribed specifically for them since starting on painkillers (17 percent),
    • they have given their painkillers to a family member or friend (14 percent), and
    • they have known or suspected someone was using, taking, or selling their painkillers (20 percent).
Household Members Generally Report More Negative Impacts
  • Interviews with people living in the same household as a long-term prescription painkiller user provide another angle of insight into these individuals, be it their spouse, parent, or another household member.
  • Household members are more likely to report they think the user is or was addicted or dependent and that their use has had a negative impact on their finances, personal relationships, and their health.
Views of the Painkiller Epidemic
  • Majorities of people personally using prescription painkillers as well as people in their household say that people who use painkillers and doctors who prescribe painkillers deserve at least some of the blame for the painkiller addiction epidemic.
  • When asked about a number of efforts what would be effective in reducing the abuse of prescription painkillers, long-term users point to efforts such as increasing pain management training for medical students and doctors (82 percent), increasing access to addiction treatment programs (80 percent), and increasing research about pain and pain management (81 percent).
Overview Introduction

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Filling the need for trusted information on national health issues, the Kaiser Family Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Menlo Park, California.