Are Opioid Prescribing Trends Finally Reducing?

Doctor writing prescription

The United States is in the midst of struggling with its worst pharmaceutical drug addiction epidemic to date. Pharmaceuticals have been in use for decades, but only in the last fifteen to twenty years have manufacturers significantly increased the production of addictive pharmaceutical drugs. This is the key difference here.

Since the early 2000s, pharmaceutical manufacturers have increased the production and distribution of prescription drugs by a factor of six. In that same time, addictions to such drugs and overdoses on such drugs also increased dramatically. Just from 2001 to 2005, pharmaceutical giants increased the production and distribution of pharmaceutical pain relievers by over three-hundred percent. What is concerning is that, in that same time, addictions to such drugs also increased by over three-hundred percent, as did overdose deaths and admissions to treatment centers.

New research is beginning to show that, after over a decade of hundreds of thousands of deaths and millions of addictions, America is finally starting to wake up to the risks attendant with certain pharmaceutical drugs. More specifically, research is beginning to show that prescribing trends for opioids are finally beginning to reduce.

New Information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

CDC research has been pointing in the direction of a reduction in opioid prescribing trends. This may yet be the best news on the addiction front that we’ve seen in years. According to CDC research, the number of opioids prescribed by doctors continued to increase from the late 1990s all the way up through 2010. However, between 2010 and 2017, opioid prescribing trends decreased. However, this is not something to become extremely excited about, because as of right now, opioid prescribing trends are still three times higher than they were in 1999.

The CDC also indicated that the prescribing rate for opioids declined by eighteen percent from 2012 to 2016, bringing the prescribing rate down to sixty-six prescriptions for every one-hundred residents. That comes out to about two-hundred and fourteen-million total prescriptions for opioids in the United States. Some U.S. counties still have prescribing rates so high that there are enough opioids in those counties to medicate every single resident in those counties.

In a nutshell, it took only ten years for opioid prescribing trends to increase by about four-hundred percent, and then it took seven years for twenty-five percent of that overall increase to drop off. Good news, but not great news.

Another factor we have to consider is that prescribing trends have not been a universally increasing factor in all states and all areas. This is an important variable to consider and a crucial distinction to make. According to CDC research, the top communities for opioid prescribing were six times greater than the bottom counties for opioid prescribing. Now, this is very concerning and controversial because there is no way that some counties in the U.S. struggle with six times the pain phenomena that other counties do. Herein we begin to glimpse the unethical and sometimes immoral flair ups that certain areas experience when it comes to opioid prescribing trends.

Doctor pointing on prescription drugs.

Such inconsistency in opioid prescribing trends from one county to the next gives us insight to inconsistent practice patterns, a lack of consensus on the appropriate and proper use of opioids, and potential profiteering and unethical prescribing of the drugs. There is absolutely no logical reason why some counties would experience six times the prescribing trends than others.

Blue Cross Blue Shield Offers Insight on Prescribing Trends

Blue Cross Blue Shield Health Insurance, easily the largest private health insurance institution in the United States, also indicated a slight decrease in prescribing trends and addiction rates for opioid pain relievers. Again, this is good news, but not great news. According to BCBS, the annual report of their customers indicated a drop in opioid prescription drug dependence from 6.2 members per every one-thousand members in 2016 to 5.9 members per every one-thousand members in 2017.

According to BCBS, the 2016 to 2017 decrease in opioid dependence marks the first decrease in eight years, specifically for individuals involved with the insurance group who have dependencies to opioids. According to Dr. Trent Haywood, the senior vice president and the chief medical officer for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association:

“We are encouraged by these findings, but we remain vigilant. More work is needed to better evaluate the effectiveness of treatment options and to ensure access to care for those suffering from opioid use disorder.”

BCBS also reported on prescribing trends for opioids, i.e. by reporting on how many customers of BCBS were receiving prescriptions for these drugs. According to BCBS, between 2013 and 2017, opioid prescribing trends for BCBS customers decreased by twenty-nine percent. Yet again, there are still hundreds of thousands of BCBS members who meet the criteria for opioid dependence. According to internal research, BCBS reported that about a quarter million of their customers are dependent on opioids.

Research from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

According to SAMSHA, there is still much work to be done, and we absolutely should not rest on our laurels. SAMSHA research indicates that there are easily more than two million Americans who are addicted to opioid pain relievers, and likely another two million Americans who are hooked on heroin or synthetic opioids. News like this gives us insight and a far better picture of what we need to do and the kinds of efforts that we need to take to overcome drug and alcohol addiction. Yes, the prescribing trend has decreased slightly, but we are still in a world of hurt with opioid prescribing that is unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.

Overcoming Opioid Addiction in America

The above accumulation of information from different organizations gives us a great deal of insight and knowledge into where the addiction epidemic is headed, specifically with opioid pharmaceuticals. We have to force ourselves to not become too excited about the dip in prescribing trends, as prescribing trends are still extremely more prominent than they were just twenty years ago.

To really reduce opioid prescribing trends, we have to fully commit to a medical revolution in how we address pain in America. We need to actually insist on other methods of addressing pain, methods that do not carry such a significant risk for addiction and the formation of a dependence to the very substances that are supposed to help us.

Though it is not commonly promoted by the medical industry, there are alternatives to pharmaceutical drugs. There are substances that can create relief and freedom from pain phenomena, all without creating risk for addiction. Valerian Root, Willow Bark, Turmeric, Magnesium, Ginger, these are just a few examples of all-natural pain relievers that carry no addiction risk. We need to focus on these approaches as being the next primary method of addressing pain in America, not the secondary approach.

If we do need to continue the use of opioid pharmaceuticals in very specific instances, these drugs should be reserved for only inpatient, intensive care, such as in hospitals for operations, surgery recovery, cancer patients, the terminally ill, etc. We simply don’t need opioids floating around in American society to the degree that they are.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.