A surprisingly high number of children and adolescents live with chronic pain, with numbers ranging from 20 to 35%, according to the American Pain Society (APS).

The most common conditions appearing among these youth include headaches, musculoskeletal pain, and stomach pain. This population has special needs, and medications may react differently in them than adults. Because children are still developing, researchers say it’s also important to consider the impact medications will have on them long-term.

For that reason, children are rarely supposed to receive medications like opioids, according to APS. However, that isn’t always the case.

Opioids leftover from surgery pose big risks for abuse among teens, researchers say.

Research from the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) found that pediatric patients may be receiving more opioids than needed after surgery. About 60% of pills prescribed went unused in one recent study, researchers said. That’s considered dangerous because it leaves ample drugs lying around for siblings to take and increases the risk for abuse.

Study co-author Dr. Myron Yaster says:

“We not only found that some physicians inadvertently may be prescribing more medicine than is being used or needed, but the majority of unused opioids are not being disposed of properly at home.”

About half of the patients studied had teenaged siblings at home considered at risk for opioid abuse. This concerns researchers because a great proportion of the pills swept up in the opioid epidemic come from this excess supply. A patient with a prescription gives their unused medication away—or sells it—to another person with no medical reason for taking the pills.

Researchers consider this non-medical use of opioids a gateway to addiction among teenagers. Some teens may consider the pills safer than street drugs because they’re considered medicine for some people.

Contributing to the problem was the lack of direction for parents, who received no instructions for properly disposing of the pills. Just 6% of parents threw out the remaining pills after their child recovered.

Teens between 14 and 15 face high risk of opioid addiction post medical use, researchers say.

While the ASA research mostly considered the potential harm for pediatric patients’ siblings to take excess drugs, University of Michigan researchers studied that risk for the patients themselves. The age group most at risk was those 14 to 15, and the most critical time was the year after their medical use stopped.

The findings emerged when researchers pored over data from 12 to 21 year olds in hopes of uncovering when or why young people became addicts.

Teens in the 14- to 15-year-old age group were up to three times more likely to develop an opioid addiction when compared to their older counterparts, aged 20 and 21. Study co-author Maria Parker says:

“Many kids start using these drugs other than what’s prescribed because they’re curious to see what it feels like.”

For those in Michigan, the issue is critical because abuse of opioids like Vicodin has quadrupled over the last eight years. Opioid abuse also leads to harder drugs, like heroin. Parker says it’s important to identify the critical age ranges so experts can apply interventions and hopefully stop addictions before they start, or at the very least, stop them from escalating.

Rural kids most at risk for prescription drug abuse, study shows.

Teenagers between the ages of 12 and 17 who live in rural areas and small towns have a 35% higher risk of abusing prescription pills, according to research from Penn State. The increased risk for those living in small cities is 21%, slightly higher than those living in the nation’s largest urban areas.

With about 1.3 million adolescents abusing opioids each year, the stakes are high. Consequences include lifelong addiction, not to mention the threat of overdose and possibly death.

Females tend to take the pills more often then males, and the most commonly abused drugs are OxyContin, Percocet, and oxycodone.

The reason for this elevated risk may have less to do with demographics and more with the realities of living in a rural area. Teens living in these less populated areas tend to visit the emergency room for medical care rather than visit a primary care physician. In emergency rooms, teens are more likely to receive prescriptions. Study co-author Shannon Monnat says:

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

Researchers said the problem is actually not as bad as it could be since rural teens lack the ready access to illegal drugs that more urban youths do. They also tend to be more religious and experience more “positive forms of peer pressure,” such as when a close-knit community discourages illegal behavior.

However, scientists continued to sound caution. Not only do rural teens have less access to treatment facilities, but the signs of opioid abuse are often hidden, unlike alcohol, for example, which smells. Monnat adds:

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

Children respond well to acupuncture, study shows.

Amid all the talk of opioids, there is a bright spot: researchers have discovered that acupuncture is a safe and effective way to manage chronic pain in children.

The study from Rush University Medical Center was one of the few studies to investigate the ancient treatment’s effectiveness on children. Most studies focus on adults. Children’s experience of pain is different than the experience of adults, and collecting child-specific data is important to researchers, not just for acupuncture, but all treatment techniques.

The researchers examined 55 children who received eight treatments, each about 30 minutes long. All the children reported significant benefits, with reduced pain along with improved quality of life, such as better physical and emotional health, and fewer problems in school or with peers. Dr. Paul Kent says:

“Acupuncture provides an amazing alternative to chronic pain medication…I’ve had patients completely weaned off all their pain medications when receiving acupuncture therapy.”

Do you think children and adolescents with chronic pain should have access to opioids?

Image by Petra Bensted via Flickr

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