By Dr. George Koumaras
For many teens, their first exposure to prescription painkillers is when they have their wisdom teeth pulled.
However, this rite of passage and the painkillers prescribed to manage the post-surgery discomfort may be the gateway to other problems such as the addiction potential of opioids.
Morphine, OxyContin, Vicodin, Percocet or codeine are some of the opioids commonly prescribed to relieve pain after wisdom teeth are extracted. While opioids can be effective at relieving pain, they are also highly addictive, which is why the American Dental Association and associated professional organizations such as the American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons are educating their members about the pitfalls of using opioids as pain control substances.
A Harvard Research Team reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that dentists are among the leading prescribers of opioid analgesics, particularly for tooth extractions. The study also found 61 percent of 14- to 17-year-olds who had a tooth pulled walked out of the dentist’s office with a prescription for painkillers. Painkillers — typically prescribed for short term use — are often taken for years after the initial prescription.
In fact, research conducted by, HealthCore, a health outcomes company, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, and the University of Washington found that more than half the people who take opioids for chronic pain are likely to still be taking the painkillers five years later.
As a health insurance company, we believe we are in an especially unique position to help individuals avoid dependence and curb prescription drug abuse because we have real-time access to records for medication use that many doctors and pharmacists do not. This means we can help flag individuals who may be getting prescriptions from multiple doctors or pharmacies, or whose refill patterns fall outside of established norms. And through our integrated health care approach, we can share this important information with a member’s primary physician.
In April, Anthem Blue Cross launched the Pharmacy Home program. Designed to help reduce addiction to opioids and other prescription drugs, the Pharmacy Home program enrolls high-risk members in a “pharmacy home,” which limits their drug coverage to one member-chosen home pharmacy (select exceptions are made where clinically prudent and in cases of emergency).
As a parent, you can help curb prescription drug abuse by taking two simple steps:
- Talk to your dentist. If your child has an upcoming dental surgery, talk to your dentist about starting with an over-the-counter pain medicine post-surgery. If a weaker drug provides relief, there may be no need to take a prescription opioid. If the pain requires a prescription, follow your doctor’s instructions and take the minimum amount you need to cope with the pain.
- Dispose of unneeded medications properly. Those extra bottles of prescription drugs you have in your medicine closet? Get rid of them – and do so properly. Hospitals, police and fire departments often host medication take-back days. Getting unneeded prescription drugs out of the house will not only help a loved one avoid mistakenly taking the wrong medication, it will also keep opioids out of the reach of children and teens.
There are no silver bullets to ending America’s opioid crisis, but taking small steps like these can help keep your teens from being the next victims.
—Dr. George Koumaras is the dental director for Anthem Blue Cross. Since joining the company in 2013, Dr. Koumaras is responsible for clinical and dental policy, dental and medical integration initiatives, fraud and abuse, grievance and appeals and Professional Review.