Pain Pills for Injured Workers Turn into Headache for Employers and Employees

According to an Institute of Medicine report, over 166 million people in the U.S. suffer from chronic pain, which is more than the number of people with heart disease, diabetes and cancer combined. Chronic pain costs the country about $635 billion annually in medical costs and lost productivity. One of the more popular ways that people deal with such pain is through prescription pain relievers known as opioids, such as Oxycontin and Vicodin. A Group Health Research Institute study reported that over 8 million U.S. adults use opioids for long-term pain management. Those injured on the job are getting prescriptions for these powerful and addictive pills at an alarming rate, leading to myriad problems for both the employees and their employers.

Well-documented risks associated with taking such pills over a long period of time exist. One of the biggest risks that an injured worker who receives a prescription for these potent painkillers faces is addiction or dependence. Over time a person’s body builds up a tolerance to the pills, meaning that patients need to take increasing doses to get the same pain relief and people can experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drugs.

Along with addiction, a very serious risk of opioids is overdose. The Group Health Research Institute study also found that people taking high-dose prescriptions of opioids for chronic pain were nine times more likely to overdose than those taking low-to-medium dosage prescriptions. However, most overdoses from opioids occurred among patients on low-to-medium doses, as such prescriptions are much more common. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry reported that over 11, 499 people died from opioid overdoses in 2007 – more than those who died from heroin and cocaine combined.

People taking opioids on a long-term basis have also experienced immune dysfunction, endocrine deficiencies, sleep disruption and an increased sensitivity to pain called hyperalgesia.

Experts suggest doctors explore alternative pain treatment options, such as cognitive therapy, for injured workers, rather than prescribing the pills as frequently as they currently do. Additionally, industry experts stress more medical professionals need to heed protocols for prescribing opioids, since too often doctors ignore them and keep writing prescriptions for patients who are in pain long after the drugs have lost their effectiveness, instead of trying some alternative treatments. The unwillingness to look to other options to help injured workers deal with pain ultimately keeps them from returning to their jobs as quickly, causing losses in wages for the employees and decreased productivity for the employers.

The practice of doctors over-prescribing opioid pain killers to people dealing with chronic pain has reached public health crisis proportions. These popularity of these painkillers has made them doctors’ treatment of choice for those suffering pain as a result of a workplace injuries. However, while the pills may relieve pain for a while, in the long run they end up causing problems for both employees and employers.

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