Every year, 3.5 million patients in the U.S. have their wisdom teeth removed. In many cases, those patients receive a bottle of immediate-release opioids like Vicodin and Percocet to manage the post-surgery pain. According to a study in the Journal of the American Dental Association, dentists are responsible for 12 percent of prescriptions for fast-acting opioid pain relievers.
The same study estimates that 23 percent of those dentist-prescribed doses are used non-medically. Given the potential for addiction associated with these powerful opioids, the two statistics reveal a health risk inherent in their use by dentists.
A recent feature on NPR’s Weekend Edition Sunday puts a face to the risk. The story follows James Hatzell, a young man who at the age of 17 received his first prescription for opioids after undergoing surgery to have his wisdom teeth removed. That prescription and his subsequent actions led to abuse of the pills, addiction—even an arrest for dealing drugs in college.
Many in the field of dentistry are re-considering the use of immediate-release opioids. Some state dental boards and associations have issued new guidelines for patients and practitioners. Pennsylvania, for example, now requires that dentists receive training in best practices for opioid prescriptions.
Others are looking for alternatives to the powerful painkillers and have found that over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can be just as effective, and much less dangerous. The American Dental Association’s published guidelines on the use of opioids (updated in October 2016) even goes so far as to recommend that dentists “consider [NSAIDs] as the first-line therapy for acute pain management.”
Something to consider if your practice is issuing opioid prescriptions to patients. To see success from the largest single health carrier in the United States after issuing pain pill limits, click here.