Teens in small towns more likely to abuse painkillers

"Some parents don't even know their children are addicted to painkillers because their kids are functioning well in everyday life," says Shannon Monnat. (Credit: lindsayΔlachance/Flickr)

Teenagers who live in rural communities are 35 percent more likely to abuse prescription painkillers than those living in bigger cities.

“Over 1.3 million adolescents abused prescription opioids within the last year,” says Shannon Monnat, assistant professor of rural sociology, demography, and sociology at Penn State. “With this number of adolescents there are major implications for increased treatment demand, risk of overdose, and even death from these opioids.”

Girls are more likely to abuse prescription painkillers than boys, according to the study published in the Journal of Rural Health. The most common painkillers include OxyContin, oxycodone, Percocet, and other morphine-based drugs.

So why the spread of opioid abuse in rural communities? Researchers say an increasing number of painkiller prescriptions and a limit on types of medical care available in rural areas play a role.

Shortage of doctors

Further, rural adolescents are more likely to go to emergency rooms for care rather than to a primary doctor, says Khary K. Rigg, assistant professor of mental health law and policy at the University of South Florida. Emergency room doctors are more likely than primary care doctors to prescribe painkillers.

“There has been a shortage of primary care practitioners in rural areas for a long time,” Monnat says. “Often, emergency rooms or urgent care clinics might be the only place for someone to receive treatment in a rural area.”

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Rural youths are also less likely to understand the risks of painkiller abuse and less likely to have access to treatment facilities.

The problem actually could be worse, the researchers say, but several factors often intervene.

“Religious beliefs and the fact that their friends are more disapproving of substance abuse appear to be protective factors against painkiller abuse,” Monnat says.

Painkillers are particularly dangerous because opioid abuse may not be as evident as other forms of substance abuse, such as alcohol.

“Some parents don’t even know their children are addicted to painkillers because their kids are functioning well in everyday life,” Monnat says.

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“Opioid abuse is different from drinking, for example, because parents can usually tell if their child is drunk, and it’s even different from marijuana use because there are behavioral differences that they may be able to notice if their kid is smoking weed.”

The researchers used data from the 2011 and 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health that surveyed 32,036 adolescents on last year prescription opioid misuse.

The Population Research Institute at Penn State, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation supported this work.

Source: Penn State