Over the last decade, doctors have increasingly relied on narcotic painkillers - like OxyContin or Percocet - as key tools in the treatment of workplace injuries. However, state regulators, medical professionals and workers' compensation insurers are beginning to worry that painkiller-intensive treatment regimens may actually do more harm than good.
According to data recently published in The New York Times, workers who take narcotic painkillers as a regular part of their treatment regimen tend to take longer to recover enough to go back to work. This is in large part because painkillers don't actually treat the underlying condition. Instead, they simply mask the symptoms. For many patients, physical therapy and other active treatments can be a much more effective way to counter the chronic pain that accompanies a workplace injury.
In addition, narcotic painkillers subject injured workers to a whole host of potential negative side-effects, including lethargy, decreased mental alertness, addiction and overdose.
Part of the blame can be placed on workers' compensation insurers. By cutting off medical treatment before the worker is ready, some insurers leave workers with no other choice than to rely on prescription painkillers to keep their symptoms at bay.
Painkillers Dramatically Increase Costs
This attitude may change once insurers start to realize just how expensive painkiller regimens really are. A study conducted by the insurance company Accident Fund Holdings determined that a "typical" workplace injury costs about $13,000 in medical and wage loss benefits. When a short-acting narcotic painkiller is prescribed as part of the treatment regimen, the average cost triples to $39,000. When a long-acting painkiller - like OxyContin - is prescribed, the cost triples again to $117,000.
A number of states, including Colorado, have implemented pain treatment guidelines in an effort to control costs and protect patients' health. It is still unclear whether these guidelines have provided measurable benefits to injured Colorado workers.
One thing is certain, though. In the wake of all this confusion, it is extremely important for injured workers to take an active role in defending their right to receive high-quality medical treatment for all workplace injuries.
Source: The New York Times, "Pain Pills Add Cost and Delays to Job Injuries," Barry Meier, June 2, 2012.