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Acetaminophen/hydrocodone, the opioid pain reliever commonly sold under the brand name Vicodin, was the most dispensed prescription medicine in 2007.
And 2008. And 2009. And every year after through 2013, according to the QuintilesIMS Institute, which tracks medicine use and spending.
Then, in 2014, this staple of the opioid abuse epidemic fell to second place behind levothyroxine, which treats hypothyroidism. By 2016, acetaminophen/hydrocodone was the fourth most prescribed drug in the nation, with the volume of prescriptions down 7.2% from 2015 and 34% from 2012.
This downhill story helps capture a trend for pain medications in general and the clinicians who prescribe them. The volume of dispensed prescriptions for all pain meds has decreased for 2 straight years now, falling 2.7% in 2015, and 1.7% in 2016, QuintilesIMS reports in its annual review of medicine use and spending, which was released today. Pain meds include both narcotic and non-narcotic analgesics as well as muscle relaxants and topical pain treatments.
The study attributes the decline to more controls placed on pain meds in response to the opioid abuse epidemic. These controls include more stringent prescribing guidelines in recent years, particularly a set issued for primary care in March 2016 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC cautioned that opioids are not first-line therapy for chronic pain, and that clinicians initially should consider nonopioid pain relievers and nonmedicine options such as exercise and cognitive behavioral therapy. When clinicians do prescribe opioids, they should start patients off at the lowest dose possible and limit treatment for acute pain to no more than 7 days. In addition, clinicians should monitor patients to ensure the drugs are helping with pain and function without inflicting harm.
"The CDC guidelines have been very powerful in changing physician behavior because they've had a larger audience," said Steven Stanos, DO, president of the American Academy of Pain Medicine, in an interview with Medscape Medical News.