About Half of Americans Take Rx Painkillers, Sedatives or Stimulants

Last year, almost 45% of Americans aged 12 and older took prescription pain relievers, sedatives, stimulants or tranquilizers, accounting for 119 million people. However, even more concerning is that 19 million of those – or 16% – misused those drugs, according to new federal data.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that misuse of these medications – known as psychotherapeutic drugs – is second only to marijuana as the country’s most prevalent illegal drug use issue.

Among those who abused prescription pain pills, the majority (54%) received their pills from a friend or relative. About one-third misused a prescription given by a doctor by taking more than the prescribed dose. And about 1 in 20 got their pain reliever from a drug dealer or stranger.

Just as troubling is the fact that most of the people with a drug problem never sought treatment.

A Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration official told reporters at a recent news conference that while 1 in 12 people over the age of 12 needed treatment for substance abuse, about 90% never sought specialized treatment that could have helped them. That figure includes both prescription drug abuse and street drug abuse.

Overall, about 2.7 million people had a prescription drug use disorder in the past year. The vast majority (2 million) was for pain reliever use disorder, followed by 688,000 with a tranquilizer use disorder, 426,000 with a stimulant use disorder and 154,000 with a sedative use disorder.

In March, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) released guidelines for opioid prescribers that aim to cut down on painkiller abuse.


Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block

Jonathan Block is a freelance writer and former MedShadow content editor. He has been an editor and writer for multiple pharmaceutical, health and medical publications, including BioCentury, The Pink Sheet, Modern Healthcare, Health Plan Week and Psychiatry Advisor. He holds a BA from Tufts University and is earning an MPH with a focus on health policy from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy.


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