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Painkiller prescriptions soar in emergency rooms

Tuesday - 3/18/2014, 5:27pm  ET

emergency room (AP)
Powerful painkillers are seeing a spike in emergency rooms. (AP)

WASHINGTON - There's a disturbing trend in emergency rooms across the country. Prescriptions for the strongest painkillers are soaring, even though the number of patients admitted with pain is up only slightly.

Researchers from the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences went through a decade's worth of ER prescription data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dr. Jesse Pines, director of the Office of Clinical Practice Innovation at the medical school, says they found "a dramatic increase in opioid prescriptions.

He says between 2001 and 2010, there was "a 50 percent increase in the number of prescriptions that were given in emergency departments and medication that was delivered in emergency departments."

Some of the most dangerous drugs saw the biggest spike in ER use. Dilaudid, a potent but potentially addictive medication was up 668.2 percent. Another class of opiods including Percocet was up 133 percent.

Pines says more attention to pain management may be part of the reason for the big increase in opioid use. But he also cites the fact that more patients are demanding the drugs.

He says Dilaudid is commonly requested in emergency rooms. Pines says while it's highly effective at curbing pain, "it also has the effect of creating a high for patients."

Another cause for concern is that many patients go from one emergency room to another, requesting the same drugs. Digital record keeping may well curb that problem as it will give doctors the ability to see what others have prescribed.

The GW researchers say all medical providers have to take potential abuse of opioids seriously. Pines says doctors should try other medications first, like Tylenol and ibuprofen.

While they want to ease the pain of their patients, Pines says opioids can be abused and lead to even greater health problems -- or worse. Doctors need to remember the rise in opiod use is simultaneous with a rise in opiod-related deaths.

The George Washington study was published in the journal Academic Emergency Medicine.

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