A report out today from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention finds that use of these highly addictive narcotic pain meds dropped in the last few years. But a closer look at the numbers in the CDC study reveals another, more troubling trend: Some doctors are still overprescribing opioids, which puts lives at risk.

Overall, the use of OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, and other opioid pain medications decreased by 13 percent between 2012 and 2015. Yet even with that drop, prescribing remains alarmingly high, according to the CDC. In 2015, U.S. doctors prescribed enough opioids to medicate every American around the clock for three weeks.

“The amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. is still too high, with too many opioid prescriptions for too many days at too high a dosage,” said the CDC's acting director, Anne Schuchat, M.D. 

More on Pain Medication

The CDC report also reveals striking inconsistencies, with healthcare providers in some parts of the country prescribing six times more opioids than providers in other areas.

That's because some doctors aren't following the latest, evidence-based guidelines, says Deborah Dowell, M.D., chief medical officer in the Division of Unintentional Injury Prevention at the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. 

“While some variation in opioid prescribing is expected and linked to factors such as the prevalence of painful conditions, differences in these characteristics explain only a fraction of the wide variation in opioid prescribing across the United States,” Dowell says. 

Another number that has experts worried is the average length of time people took opioid painkillers, which increased by a third over the study period. That's a concern because there's little evidence that narcotic pain drugs help with long-term pain. What's more, opioids carry serious risks of addiction, accidental overdose, and even death—especially when taken at higher doses or used longer term.

For example, even at low doses, taking an opioid for more than three months increases the risk of addiction by 15 times, according to the CDC. And taking high doses of the drugs sharply increases the risk of a life-threatening overdose. People taking 60 mg of oxycodone (two 30-mg tablets of OxyContin) or 90 mg of hydrocodone (nine 10-mg tablets of Vicodin HP) daily face a 10 times greater risk of overdose than people taking lower doses of the drugs.

Safer Pain Relief

Last year, the CDC released guidelines advising doctors to not prescribe more than three days' worth of opioids for most patients.

“Healthcare providers have an important role in offering safer and more effective pain management while reducing risks of opioid addiction and overdose," Schuchat says.

But because some doctors are too quick to prescribe opioids, patients need to speak up and ask about other options for relieving pain, advises Consumer Reports’ medical director, Orly Avitzur, M.D.

"The thinking on opioid prescribing has changed in recent years as the severity of the risks of the drugs has come to light," Avitzur says. "We also have far more research supporting the effectiveness of safer medications and even nondrug measures."

For example, research shows that the combination of over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic) and an anti-inflammatory drug such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB and generic) or naproxen (Aleve and generic) can actually work better than an opioid to relieve pain after a dental procedure.

And the American College of Physicians now recommends avoiding opioids for most cases of back pain. Instead, the APC recommends trying nondrug options such as heat, acupuncture, massage, spinal manipulation, and yoga before resorting to any medication.

However, that updated advice can be slow to trickle down to all doctors' everyday practices, Avitzur says: "Prescribing habits become deeply entrenched. So it's important to remind your healthcare providers that you don't want—or need—a lengthy opioid prescription."

Longer courses and higher doses of opioids are appropriate for people suffering severe pain from cancer or a terminal illness, she says. "But even after surgery or an injury, most other patients can transition to safer OTC pain relievers within three days, says Avitzur. "Very few patients need powerful prescription painkillers for more than a week."

Editor's Note: These materials were made possible by a grant from the state Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Education Grant Program, which is funded by a multistate settlement of consumer fraud claims regarding the marketing of the prescription drug Neurontin (gabapentin).