Opioid addiction has skyrocketed over the past two decades, with half a million people in the U.S. dying from opioids during that time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Prescriptions for opioids were a major contributor to the problem, and dentists wrote about one out of every 10 of those prescriptions.

Let’s look at how Delta Dental is helping dentists battle opioid addiction among their patients and what you as an employer can do to prevent, recognize and treat abuse.

What are opioids?

Opioids are powerful pain relievers that block pain signals between the brain and other parts of the body. Opium has been long used as a natural pain reliever, and morphine became widely prescribed during the Civil War.

Synthetic opioids were created as early as the 1930s, and with the introduction of oxycodone in 1996, medical professionals began prescribing them to help patients manage pain. These synthetics, which also included hydrocodone, hydromorphone and oxymorphone, were just as addictive, though, and today, 2 million Americans become dependent on opioids every year.

The total number of opioid prescriptions peaked in 2012 at more than 255 million, but the CDC estimates that there are still about 43.3 prescriptions written per 100 people. Although the U.S. represents 4.4% of the world’s population, we use more than 80% of the world’s opioids. And dentists have contributed to that number. Let’s find out why.

Opioids and dental health

Dentists have long prescribed opioids to ease any pain and discomfort from tooth extractions, dental surgery and dental implant procedures. Many teens and young adults receive their first opioid prescription from the dentist, typically for wisdom tooth removal. But that practice is starting to change.

Dr. Daniel Croley, chief dental officer for Delta Dental, said there is growing evidence that non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen are an effective first line of defense in managing post-treatment pain.

“Dentists must consider the standard use of NSAIDs and long-acting anesthetics first before prescribing any opioids,” he said. “They can also take advantage of available state prescription drug monitoring programs to prevent overprescribing to patients that may be seeking opioids.”

Although Delta Dental plans don’t cover prescriptions, we recognize the role our national dentist networks can play in the fight against opioid abuse and help dentists create responsible pain management practices:

  • Dentists advise patients on reasonable post-surgical pain expectations and management. They also write opioid prescriptions that don’t exceed the recommended dosage, and keep the prescription lengths at a short duration.
  • We can partner with large-group customers and health carriers to help pinpoint prescription patterns.

How to prevent opioid abuse in the workplace

Since an estimated 40% of opioid overdose deaths were from prescription medication, opioid abuse is sometimes referred to as “white-collar substance abuse.” But the opioid crisis is not limited to just office workers. Overuse of opioids affects all races, crosses all age groups and is present in all classes and income brackets.

Based on a survey conducted by the National Safety Council, 75% of employers report that opioid use has affected their workplace, but only 17% report being extremely well prepared to address the issue.

Make sure that your workplace has a strong substance abuse policy and program in place to prevent, recognize and treat opioid problems in the workplace. Steps include:

  • Review your workplace’s policy, program, and rules with new hires and existing employees.
  • Talk with employees about how they can get help through an employee assistance program, wellness program or health care provider.
  • If your employer has a drug testing policy, give employees the details of that policy as well as what employee protections are in place. You can also provide them with information about substance abuse, its warning signs and its effects on their work.
  • Share prevention resources such as health and wellness programs, helplines and other community resources. For example, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration offers a national helpline at 800–662-HELP (4357) or 800–487-4889 (TDD) with free, confidential help 24 hours a day for people with substance abuse problems.

Working to end the opioid crisis

Signs are pointing toward a turnaround in opioid abuse. The number of prescriptions for opioids declined by 6.9% from 2019 to 2020 as medical professionals have become more aware of the problems of abuse.

Delta Dental continues to encourage dentists to refrain from prescribing opioids, and education and prevention efforts are vital to stopping the epidemic.

“Patients trust dentists to prescribe medications safely,” Dr. Croley said. “We urge our dentists to avoid opioids to minimize exposure to this addictive drug that is causing so much pain to so many people.”