Dentist prescriptions for unnecessary opioid painkillers increase addiction risk in teens and young adults

It’s hard not to see a story in the media about opioid addiction. The statistics are sobering.

Around 130 people die in the United States daily after an opioid overdose. A significant chunk of that statistic comes from overdoses of prescription pain relievers and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Around one fourth of chronic pain patients prescribed opioids misuse them and 8-12% of them become addicted.

Then there’s the issue of prescription drugs acting as gateways to illicit use. Around 80% of heroin users first misused and became addicted to prescription opioids.

Recent research points to the unnecessary prescription of opioid painkillers by dentists as a significant factor that should be avoided. The peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine published results of an original investigation in December 2018. In the typical watered-down language of medical journals, the article concluded that, “a substantial proportion of adolescents and young adults are exposed to opioids through dental clinicians. Use of these prescriptions may be associated with an increased risk of subsequent opioid use and abuse.”

Digging a little deeper, a 2011 American Dental Association statistics article reflects that dentists prescribe 12% of all opioid painkillers, ringing just behind family physicians, who prescribed 15%. American Dental Association data further suggests that around 85% of oral surgeons write prescriptions for opioids after wisdom teeth extraction.

What’s interesting about these statistics is that, generally, there are non-addictive alternative medications that are actually more effective. As anyone who’s had a bad toothache or who has needed a root canal can attest, anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen are effective at controlling tooth pain. Medical and dental research suggest that they’re more effective than opioids.

It certainly looks like many dentists and oral surgeons have a bad opioid prescription habit that needs to stop. This is particularly true, considering that the JAMA Internal Medicine study found that nearly 6% of dental patients aged 16-25 were diagnosed with opioid abuse within one year of receiving an initial prescription for an opioid painkiller from a dentist. In contrast, the control group of similar patients who didn’t receive an opioid prescription from a dental provider had a paltry 0.4% rate of opioid abuse after dental treatment.

The American Dental Association has recommended that its members stop the practice of prescribing opioids and instead use non-narcotic painkillers as the go-to line of therapy. There has been some progress. In 2017, dentists wrote 18.1 million opioid prescriptions. While that’s still a staggering amount, in 2012, that figure was 18.5 million. Yet, there’s still room for improvement.

Adult patients, as well as parents of patients who are minors, should be aware of the serious opioid risks and the tendency of some dentists and physicians to over-prescribe. It’s a good idea to voice your concerns with providers and to ask if non-addictive painkillers are an appropriate option.

We are here to help

As a Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney, I review cases where inappropriate opioid prescriptions have led to serious injury and death.

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured because of dental, medical, hospital, or surgical care, click here to send us a confidential email via our “Contact Us” form or call us at 281-580-8800.

All consultations are free, and, because we only represent clients on a contingency fee, you will owe us nothing unless we win your case. We handle cases in the Houston area and all over Texas. We are currently working on medical malpractice lawsuits in Houston, The Woodlands, Sugar Land, Conroe, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, Beaumont, and Waco.


Robert Painter is a medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits against hospitals, physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers. A member of the board of directors of the Houston Bar Association, he was honored, in 2018, by H Texas as one of Houston’s top lawyers. Also, in 2018, the Better Business Bureau recognized Painter Law Firm PLLC with its Award of Distinction.

Robert Painter
Article by

Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.