Does the Dental Industry Has an Opioid Script Problem?

dentist with dental tools

Recent studies show that the dental industry in America may be an essential link in the addiction crisis, with nearly half of dental prescriptions exceeding prescription guidelines for acute pain management.

The research, published today in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, covered a five-year study period of dental prescriptions.

What Do the Numbers Say?

Dentists are a vital component in addiction prevention that has often been overlooked in research studies. However, the dental industry is responsible for 10% of all opioid prescriptions in the United States. Yet, in three out of ten prescriptions, dentists prescribed a more powerful opioid than necessary following painful procedures. And the prescriptions were typically for longer than three days, which is the current opioid prescription guideline for acute surgery pain.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data on nearly 550,000 dental visits by adult patients between 2011 and 2015.

“Dental procedures like extractions can leave patients with a lot of pain that needs to be managed, and many dentists are doing a wonderful job of managing their patients’ pain appropriately and responsibly,” said Jessina McGregor, a researcher in the Oregon State University College of Pharmacy who took part in the study. “But our findings suggest that there’s room for improvement among some dentists, improvement that could make a huge difference in our society as we try to combat the opioid crisis.”

Dental Pain Management Alternatives

Opioid guidelines for dentists are available via the National Institue of Dental and Craniofacial Research. In general, for short-term pain relief, the FDA recommends that patients only receive a three-day supply of pain medication. If appropriate, opioids can be avoided altogether, and a patient can alternate taking acetaminophen and NSAIDs.

It’s incredibly important to be careful when prescribing to youths. They may not have exposure to narcotics or may be exploring drug use, making them particularly vulnerable to the dangers narcotics pose. Dentists are often the first medical professional to administer narcotics to a teen or pre-teen. It’s important to speak with them and their family about the risks of addiction and decide how the drug will be administered and what warning signs to look for.