Surgical painkiller leads to teenage addiction

Katie Earles

By Katie Earles

Millions of teenagers get their wisdom teeth removed each year, and with the expected swelling and discomfort comes access to highly addictive narcotic painkillers.

Hydrocodone is an opioid pain narcotic used to treat severe pain. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has classified it as a “Schedule II” drug, meaning it has a high potential for abuse, even at regular doses. Every teenager who gets their wisdom teeth out is given an ample supply of the drug.

“I didn’t think I was reliant upon hydrocodone at the time, but looking back, I definitely was,” said senior Catherine Moore, who got her wisdom teeth out when she was 13 years old. “I was taking up to five doses a day. I felt so much better each time I used it that I didn’t question whether I should take more or not. After a week, my dad noticed how frequently I took the pills and eased me off of it.”

In the 1980s, hydrocodone was only used in cases to relieve pain from cancer or severe trauma. Since then, use of the drug has become significantly more widespread. The Drug Enforcement Administration has reported that over 130 million prescriptions were distributed in 2013, making it the most prescribed medication in the United States.

“Nowadays, hydrocodone and other opioid painkillers are used to treat chronic pain, and it can only extend short-term relief,” said Dr. Brett Kaylor, chief resident in psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia (MGC). “It can become a gateway drug if misused and is a risk to the adolescent community if not handled carefully. It’s not a benign medicine; sometimes the risk [of taking hydrocodone] is too great. Tylenol works just as well.”

Dr. Kaylor will be starting an addiction medicine fellowship at MGC this July.

There is reasoning behind what some claim to be an excessive prescription. Frequently, those who have their wisdom teeth removed do not have a personal relationship with the doctor prescribing them pain medication, which leads to doctoral uncertainty on the amount of pain a patient can cope with.

“Pain tolerance varies,” said Dr. Joyce Lee of Metropolitan Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Associates. Dr. Lee performs wisdom teeth surgery every day and prescribes her patients with hydrocodone. “Everyone reacts differently to hydrocodone, so I apply an average, about 20 or 30 pills; no one wants their patient to be in pain. Many patients don’t use all the medication they are given.”

Addiction to hydrocodone is not a random occurrence. Many factors can contribute to the likelihood of a patient becoming reliant on the drug.

“I’ve found that patients usually do not become addicted to a prescription drug unless they have a prior disposition to the drug,” said Dr. Sal Morana, a pharmacist/consultant with national firm, Willis Towers Watson. “If a patient smokes, gambles, or participates in other risky behavior, they are more likely to become addicted to hydrocodone.”

Similarly to other addictive substances, hydrocodone abuse is not confined to certain ages, ethnicities or socio-economic levels. The DEA reports that 24.4 million people over the age of 12 have used hydrocodone for non-medical purposes.

When ordering prescription drugs from a pharmacy, the database contains medical information on the one ordering. However, dentists do not have such quick access to prior information.

Recent studies show that hydrocodone, vicodin and other opioid painkillers have a street value, making it crucial for patients to handle hydrocodone with care.

“Once you have used all the pills you need, I suggest grinding down the remains along with coffee grounds and throwing them away,” Dr. Morana said. “Teenagers especially need to be careful when handling hydrocodone. It’s definitely not a drug to mess with.”

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