CDC issues new guidelines for opioid painkiller prescriptions in response to decades-long epidemic of addiction and overdoses

by Charles Miller

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (“CDC”) has issued the first national safety guidelines for physicians regarding prescriptions for opioid painkillers. The new guidelines were issued in response to concerns among health experts and government officials about the epidemic of addiction, abuse, and overdoses caused by the widespread prescription of opioid medications such as OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin, which are linked to tens of thousands of deaths each year.

Under the new guidelines, doctors are being encouraged to treat patients with over-the-counter pain relievers before issuing prescriptions for highly addictive opioid drugs. The regulations also encourage doctors who do issue prescriptions for opioid painkillers to limit those prescriptions to just a few days’ supply in most cases in order to discourage abuse and limit the potential for addiction.

Opioid Painkillers: An Epidemic of Abuse

The epidemic of opioid painkiller prescriptions in the U.S. began about two decades ago, when doctors began prescribing these drugs to treat patients with routine pain. This change in the opioid prescribing practices of U.S. physicians came partially as a result of efforts by the pharmaceutical industry, which initiated a campaign to convince doctors that they could prescribe opioids to treat routine conditions such as migraine headaches, arthritis, or back pain with little danger of addiction for patients.

As a result of this campaign by the drug industry, opioid medications became the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S., with annual sales of nearly $2 billion. The CDC says that about 250 million painkiller prescriptions are written in the U.S. by doctors each year—enough “for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.”

The widespread treatment of patients with routine pain using opioid painkillers led to a sharp increase in the number of cases of abuse, addiction, and overdose caused by these drugs. More than 165,000 patients in the U.S. have died since 1999 as a result of overdose or other complications from opioid painkiller abuse. In 2014, the number of deaths caused by opioid painkiller overdoses reached an all-time high of 28,647 deaths, prompting the federal government to finally act in an attempt to curb this epidemic of opioid abuse.

CDC Response to Curb the Growing Problem of Opioid Painkillers

The new CDC guidelines were issued following an exhaustive study by the agency of research into the long-term health benefits of opioid medications, as well as pain and addiction experts who have thoroughly researched these drugs. The CDC investigation found that in some cases, prescription painkillers actually caused patients’ pain to become worse during long-term use. The agency also found that more than 25% of patients who received prescription opioids to treat long-term pain became dependent on the drugs, increasing their risk of addiction or overdose.

Many health experts were quick to praise the new CDC regulations, saying they were long overdue. “For the first time, the federal government is communicating clearly that the widespread practice of treating common conditions with long-term opioids is inappropriate,” says Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “We know of no other medication routinely used for a non-fatal condition that kills patients so frequently,” said CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden in an article outlining the new regulations in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Although the CDC stated that the aggressive promotion of opioid painkillers by the pharmaceutical industry played a role in the widespread use of these drugs, the agency also said that the sometimes irresponsible prescribing practices of doctors has also played a role in the opioid epidemic. “The prescription overdose epidemic is doctor-driven,” said Dr. Frieden. “It can be reversed in part by doctors’ actions.”

New CDC Regulations on Opioid Painkiller Prescriptions

The new CDC guidelines on opioid painkiller prescriptions largely follow the recommendations of addiction experts who have long called for regulations to curb the use of opioid painkillers. Under the new rules, doctors are encouraged to treat patients with ibuprofen and aspirin before they consider issuing a prescription for more powerful opioid drugs. Doctors are also advised to monitor patients who receive opioid prescriptions in order check for signs of abuse.

In cases where physicians have determined that opioid prescriptions are called for to treat short term pain, doctors are advised to issue only enough pills to treat patients for three to seven days in order to limit the potential for abuse. The CDC’s new recommendations about opioids will apply to patients with chronic pain lasting longer than three months, but will not apply to patients with cancer or terminally ill patients, who often require opioid drugs such as fentanyl in order to manage severe pain.

Although the new regulations are non-binding, health experts say that the primary care physicians for whom the rules are intended will be adopted as the standard of care of issuing opioid prescriptions thanks to the authority of the CDC. Primary care physicians account for about 50% of opioid painkiller prescriptions in the U.S., but often have very little training about how to safely prescribe these medications to patients.

Experts say that the new rules will also have a significant effect on how opioids are prescribed by dentists. According to a recent study by Harvard University, nearly half of Medicaid patients who undergo dental surgery are given opioid prescriptions to manage pain, including 61% of teenage patients.

The insurance industry—which covers millions of opioid prescriptions in the U.S. each year—may also see significant changes as a result of the new CDC rules. Large insurance companies such as Aetna and Cigna say that they are currently reviewing the new regulations on opioid prescriptions to determine how they will affect patients covered by their plans.

Opioid Overdose Victims May Qualify To File a Lawsuit

The overprescription of prescription painkiller medications has caused disastrous consequences for patients who developed addictions or suffered overdoses due to their use of these drugs. For years, the drug industry has aggressively promoted opioid medications to physicians, regardless of the health consequences their use may have for patients. Doctors who indiscriminately prescribe these opioid medications to patients have also contributed to the growing epidemic of prescription painkiller overdoses in the U.S.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of an overdose or other serious complications caused by opioid overprescription, you may be eligible to file a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the medication they were given as well as the doctor or hospital who prescribed the drug. The first step in filing a lawsuit is to secure the help of an experienced attorney who can help guide you through the process of filing a claim.

If you or a loved one has been hurt by side effects from opioid painkiller medications, the lawyers at Heygood, Orr & Pearson are ready to help. For more information about filing a lawsuit and to learn if you may be eligible to file a case, contact our law firm by calling toll-free at 1-877-446-9001, or by following the link to our free case evaluation form located at the top of this page and answering a few simple questions to get started.


Case results depend upon a variety of factors unique to each case. Results of other cases do not guarantee or predict a similar result in any future case.

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by Charles Miller

Charles Miller is a licensed attorney and a partner at Heygood, Orr & Pearson. Charles focuses his practice on areas of complex commercial litigation and personal injury litigation.