Study Shows Young People Often Prescribed Opioids by Dentists

Nearly one-third of those who received prescriptions in 2015 got them from a dental office

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Study Shows Young People Often Prescribed Opioids by Dentists

A significant percentage of privately insured adolescents and young adults who were prescribed opioids in 2015 received those prescriptions from a dentist, according to a study published Dec. 3 in JAMA Internal Medicine.

About 31 percent of these patients—adolescents and young adults ages 16 to 25—received their opioid prescription from a dental provider. And among those who received a prescription from a dentist, nearly 6 percent were diagnosed with opioid use disorder within a year, according to the study.

The authors compared patients who received opioid prescriptions with a control group and found that exposure to opioids through a dental clinician was associated with more opioid misuse than among those who were not similarly exposed. Nearly 7 percent of those who had been prescribed opioids experienced some form of opioid misuse, compared with just 0.1 percent among the control group.

Widespread misuse of opioids affects millions of Americans every year. In 2017, 2 million people misused these medications for the first time.

An earlier JAMA study showed that dentists in 2009  were the main source of opioid prescriptions for patients ages 10 to 19. According to separate data from the American Dental Association, the percentage of opioid prescriptions written by dentists for all age groups declined from 1998 to 2012, from 15.5 percent to 6.4 percent. However, the rate of prescriptions for those ages 11 to 19 increased by two-thirds from 2010 to 2015, from 99.7 per 1,000 dental patients to 165.9 per 1,000.

Dentists frequently prescribe opioids to adolescents and young adults to ease the pain caused by third molar, or wisdom, tooth extractions. These findings, however, suggest that this initial exposure may be linked with subsequent opioid misuse.

Jane Koppelman is a research manager and Allison Corr is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ dental campaign.