More Disabled Americans Are Taking Painkillers

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

In recent years, the number of Americans receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) has risen by leaps and bounds. In addition to the increase of total recipients, a new study in the September issue of Medical Care indicates more than 40 percent of all SSDI recipients take opioid pain relievers, while the prevalence of chronic opioid use is over 20 percent and rising. Study authors say this trend is beyond concerning, pointing out that narcotic painkillers are extremely addictive and a poor long-term pain management solution.

The Relationship Between Disability and Opiates

Prescription opioid use, abuse, and overdose fatalities are steadily increasing in the United States. That leaves medical experts scrambling to understand chronic pain and working to identify new forms of alternative pain management.

Researchers obtained annual opioid use measures among disabled Medicare beneficiaries under the age of 65. Specifically, they evaluated:

  • Any opiate use
  • Chronic opiate use (more than 6 prescriptions per year)
  • Intensity of opiate use
  • Opioid prescribers per user

Related: DEA Sets New Rules for Hydrocodone: What You Need to Know

Study Findings Indicate a Disturbing Trend

Study authors suggest that opioid use among disabled American workers is increasing. During the study period, the percentage of SSDI recipients taking opioids slightly declined from 43.9 percent in 2007 to 43.7 percent in 2011. However, chronic opioid use rose from 21.4 percent in 2007 to 23.1 percent in 2011. What’s more, the average number of pills taken among this group spiked in 2011 — going from 239 pills in 2007 to 312 pills in 2011.

The most commonly prescribed opiate pain medication among disabled Americans is hydrocodone, followed by Oxycodone.

More than one-third of all SSDI recipients are diagnosed with chronic pain, with nearly half filling at least one opiate prescription per year. However, around 1 in 4 are considered “chronic” opiate users, filling 6 or more opiate prescriptions per year. The most commonly prescribed opiate pain medication among disabled Americans is hydrocodone, followed by Oxycodone.

The average daily dosage among chronic opiate users remains intense. Researchers learned that 20 percent receive 100 mg morphine equivalents or more on a daily basis, while 10 percent reached or exceeded 200 mg daily.


Treating chronic pain is difficult. In addition to the risk of addiction, disabled American workers also struggle with the common side effects of opiate painkillers, such as constipation. Interestingly enough, research suggests that long-term use of prescription opiates can ultimately worsen chronic pain.

Learn more about treatment options for prescription painkiller addiction.

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