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The Washington Post/Kaiser Survey: 1 in 3 Long-Term Prescription Painkiller Users Think They’re Addicted or Dependent

Some Report Misuse Such as Taking Pills Not Prescribed for Them or Giving Their Painkillers to Others

As the nation struggles with an ongoing epidemic of prescription painkiller abuse, misuse, and overdoses, a new Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation survey finds that one in three (34%) of those who recently used such drugs for at least two months report being addicted or dependent.

Featured in Sunday’s The Washington Post, the new survey examines the views and experiences of long-term users of strong prescription painkillers, defined as adults who have taken the drugs for at least two months at some point during the past two years, other than to treat pain from cancer or terminal illness. These long-term users represent an estimated 5 percent of adults nationally.

Most long-term users are battling significant health problems, including seven in ten who say they have a debilitating disability or chronic disease. Almost all (98%) long-term painkiller users cite relieving pain as a reason for using the medications, but some also report other reasons:

  • One third (34%) say they take the painkillers for fun or to get high;
  • One in five (22%) say they take them to deal with day-to-day stress; and
  • One in ten (12%) say they take them to relax or relieve tension.

Nearly all (97%) long-term users say they started taking the painkillers through a prescription from a doctor, and most say they discussed with their doctor the possibility of addiction or dependence and alternative ways to manage pain. However, only a third (33%) say their doctor discussed a plan for getting off of the medication.

Some long-term users also report misuse of prescribed medications, including:

  • 20 percent say that they have known or suspected that someone else was using, taking, or selling their painkillers;
  • 17 percent report taking painkillers not prescribed for them; and
  • 14 percent say they’ve shared their painkillers with a family member or friend.

Given the recent attention to prescription opioid abuse, two thirds (67%) of long-term users say they are concerned that efforts to reduce the number of people abusing prescription painkillers will make it harder for them to obtain their medication.

The new Post/Kaiser Survey of Long-Term Prescription Painkiller Users and Their Household Members is the 30th in a series of surveys over the past 20 years conducted as part of The Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation Survey Project. The poll was conducted by cellular and landline telephone October 3 – November 9, 2016, among a random national sample of 809 adults age 18 and older who they themselves (n=622), or a household member (n=187) have taken strong prescription painkillers for a period of two months or more at some time in the past two years other than to treat pain from cancer or terminal illness. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 4 percentage points for the full survey and plus or minus 5 percentage points for those personally taking prescription painkillers long-term. A report with full survey results is available on the Foundation’s website. The Washington Post articles on the survey findings are available at washingtonpost.com. The survey was designed and analyzed jointly by researchers at Kaiser and The Washington Post.

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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.