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Prescription Drug Addiction and the Workforce

Construction worker in despair


Prescription drug abuse comes in second only to marijuana as the United State’s most prevalent illicit drug problem. Unfortunately, a large number of people naively abuse or become addicted to prescription drugs after sustaining a workplace injury and treating it with painkillers.

The prescription drug problem often starts with an individual’s honest need for pain medication. However, it ends up costing our nation an average of 44 deaths each day to prescription drug overdose, $200 billion each year to our nation’s healthcare system to professionally treat indviduals (around 8% of what we spend on healthcare), and $40 billion each year to America’s workforce in lost productivity.

Most Commonly Prescribed Drugs for Workplace Injuries

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Vicodin and other hydrocodone-combination painkillers are the most commonly prescribed drugs for workplace injuries. Due to the nature of most workplace injuries, often involving lower back pain, medical treatment is most likely to include narcotic pain medications (opiates). The prescription drugs most commonly given to people following a workplace injury include:

  • Oxycodone (often prescribed with acetaminophen/Percocet to treat severe pain)
  • Prescription Ibuprofen (for mild to moderate pain)
  • Tramadol (for moderate to moderately severe pain)
  • Muscle relaxants

Side Effects of Prescription Drugs

Synthetic or semi-synthetic opiates are considered the most addictive pain medications. Injured workers sometimes compound the problem by attempting to self-control their dosages, often taking more than the recommended dosage when experiencing bouts of pain. Taking more than the prescribed dosage can also increase the likelihood of experiencing side effects. Some of the main side effects associated with opioid medications include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Mild confusion and dizziness
  • Increased fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping

Prescription Drug Addiction Associated with Long-term Use

Opioids are intended for use in the treatment of the short-term pain often associated with workplace injuries. Increasing research suggests that if workplace pain lingers beyond 3-4 months, non-drug treatments like physical therapy or corrective surgery tend to provide better relief. The reasons for the increased risk of long-term dependency is because the chemicals in some opioid medications attach to pain receptors in the brain and over time can physiologically change how pain is perceived and processed.

What Employers Can Do to Avoid Workplace Injuries

Preventing workplace injuries starts with identifying likely risks and determining how to increase safety. For instance, with jobs involving heavy or frequent lifting, employers should provide guidance on proper lifting techniques. It’s unrealistic to prevent all workplace injuries. However, responsible actions from employers and employees like not refusing an initial medical evaluation can help minimize the severity of injuries. Some general practices that may help prevent workplace injuries include:

  • Discouraging employees from taking unsafe shortcuts to get the job done faster
  • Identifying potential dangers and ensuring that all employees are aware of such risks (and properly supervised when working under such conditions)
  • Ensuring that personal protective equipment is used when appropriate (and making sure that employees know how to properly use such equipment)
  • Remaining up-to-date on OSHA guidelines

The odds of overcoming a dependency on pain medications are greater if the problem is detected early. Treatment typically includes a supervised withdrawal period and support during the recovery process. Treatment may also include self-administered, prescribed medications that can counter withdrawal symptoms like naloxone, suboxone, or subutex (Bup/Nx-containing drugs). Careful monitoring of prescription drug use following workplace injuries may be able to help reduce the impact to the workforce when temporary use of painkillers becomes a serious addiction.


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