Prescriptions for narcotic painkillers have surged in recent years. Fatal overdoses and abuse of the drugs have risen, too. Doctors and patients are grappling with how to balance the need for pain relief with the potential for trouble.
In April, Judy Foreman, author of A Nation in Pain, summed up the dilemma to NPR's Scott Simon. "We haven't been able to really ever get it right, in my opinion, and it's really been very tough on pain patients who legitimately need the medications," she said. "And at the same time, the more prescription opioids there are floating around out there, the more people ... are abusing them. So it's colliding epidemics."
How do Americans see this issue? NPR and Truven Health Analytics conducted a nationwide poll to find out.
We wanted to know how worried, or not, people are about using painkillers. And we really wanted to find out whether these developments, these "colliding epidemics" as Foreman calls them, are changing peoples' attitudes toward narcotic painkillers. Are they fearful of or comfortable with taking them?
Our survey shows that most Americans have taken these kinds of medicines at some point in their lives. A little more that half of the people surveyed said that. The most common reason by far was to relieve some kind of temporary pain: a sprained ankle, surgery, dental procedure. About 1 in 5 said they had taken the drugs for chronic pain.
Seventy-eight percent said they believe there is a link between drug addiction and narcotic painkillers.
A little more than a third, or 36 percent, who had taken narcotic painkillers had concerns about them. And the concern about these drugs was a bit lower for people who hadn't taken them, at about 30 percent.
The top worry was addiction. About 36 percent of people said addiction best described their concerns. After that, about 30 percent of people were most concerned about side effects. Common side effects with opioids include sleepiness, constipation and nausea.
There's been a lot of attention paid to the painkiller dilemma. And there's been a real public health push to make doctors and patients more thoughtful about when to use these drugs. Has that led people to change their views?
It turned out that about a quarter of those surveyed said they had refused or questioned a prescription for an opioid. We polled people about painkillers in 2011, and the answer to that question was about the same then.
We asked how people feel about new, particularly potent painkillers. Some states are looking to ban drugs like these, even though the Food and Drug Administration recently approved one called Zohydro. In our poll, a majority of Americans say drugs like those should be available.
The poll is based on responses from 3,010 people collected during the first half of May. People were contacted by land line, cellphone and over the Internet. The margin for error is plus or minus 1.8 percentage points.
The full results of the poll can be found here.
LYNN NEARY, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Prescriptions for narcotic painkillers have surged in recent years. Abuse of the drugs, including fatal overdoses, has risen, too. Doctors and patients are grappling with how to balance the need for pain relief with the potential for trouble. Judy Foreman wrote a book called "A Nation in Pain." She summed up the dilemma to WEEKEND EDITION Scott Simon in April.
JUDY FOREMAN: We haven't been able to really ever get it right, in my opinion. And it's really been very tough on pain patients who legitimately need the medications. And at the same time, the more people were inclined to or feel they need to are abusing them. So it's colliding epidemics.
NEARY: How do Americans see this issue? NPR and its partner Truven Health Analytics conducted a nationwide poll to find out. And Scott Hensley, the host of NPR's Shots blog, is here to talk about the results. Welcome to the program, Scott.
SCOTT HENSLEY, BYLINE: Thanks, Lynn. Great to be here.
NEARY: So what were you trying to find out with this poll?
HENSLEY: There's been a lot of media coverage in the past couple of years about this painkiller dilemma. There's been a real public health push to make doctors and patients more thoughtful about when to use these drugs. Overdose deaths quadrupled since the late 1990s. And we really wanted to find out whether these colliding epidemics, as Judy Foreman calls them, were changing people's attitudes toward the painkillers. Were they fearful of taking them - fearful of addiction or side effects?
NEARY: And what did the poll find out?
HENSLEY: Well, I was a little bit surprised that only about a third of the people who had taken narcotic painkillers that are opioids said that they had any concerns about them. And the concerns about the drugs was just a tiny bit lower for people who hadn't taken them. Overall, the people were most afraid of becoming addicted. The other issue was side effects like sleepiness, constipation, nausea.
NEARY: Are these kinds of concerns leading people to avoid taking painkillers?
HENSLEY: We tried to find out about that by asking whether in fact people had questioned or refused a prescription from a doctor. About a quarter of people had, which you know is not insignificant. But when we asked the same question back in 2011, we got about the same response. So it hasn't changed that much.
NEARY: There are people who really need these painkillers despite the problems with them. So how much do people who are taking painkillers really know about them?
HENSLEY: Well, one thing we found out in the poll was that most Americans do have experience with these drugs. Half of the respondents to the survey said that at some point in their lives, they had taken these drugs. The most common reason was they had some kind of temporary pain, something like a sprained ankle or maybe a dental problem. And then about 1 in 5 said that they had taken the drugs for some chronic pain. And that 20 percent is where the conflict between the need for pain relief and the potential for abuse or addiction is the greatest.
NEARY: And did the poll ask about people who need these drugs for really severe pain?
HENSLEY: Well, what we did ask was how people felt about some new painkillers that are even stronger. So there's one called Zohyrdo, which the FDA recently approved. And we wondered - well, do people see these in a different light because of the concerns? The majority of people said that it was the right thing to have those drugs available for people who need them.
NEARY: Scott Hensley is the host of NPR's Shots blog. Thanks for being with us, Scott.
HENSLEY: Thank you, Lynn. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.