The new Medical Care study focused on Americans younger than 65 who qualified for Medicare benefits because of long-standing work disabilities. Most had a "musculoskeletal" condition, such as chronic back, neck or joint pain, which don't, in the long run, respond well to prescription painkillers.
"In the short term, people get some relief," said Dr. Eric Collins, physician-in-chief at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn., which specializes in psychiatric and addiction treatment.
"But there's no good evidence that long-term use is effective for non-cancer pain," Collins said.
Despite that, Meara's team found an increase in chronic painkiller use -- defined as six or more prescriptions. By 2011, nearly one-quarter of disabled workers were using a prescription painkiller long-term.
On the other hand, prescriptions overall dipped slightly. They peaked in 2010, when just under 45 percent of disabled workers got a painkiller prescription. A year later, that was down one percentage point.
"I do think there will be less prescribing now," Collins said, noting the national concern over what many call an "opioid epidemic."
According to the CDC, about 12 million Americans abused prescription painkillers in 2010 -- meaning they used the drugs for nonmedical reasons. And in recent years, roughly 15,000 Americans have died annually from overdosing on the drugs. That's triple the rate in 1999.
Both federal and state governments have taken steps to control painkiller prescriptions. Some states now require doctors to check state-run prescription databases before prescribing a painkiller to help spot patients who are "doctor-shopping" to get multiple prescriptions of the same drug.
In this study, people who were chronically taking painkillers often had multiple providers. But Meara said it's not clear how many of them might have been doctor-shopping.
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