January 6, 2022
Opioids are in the Disability Community Too
Opioids fueled a record of nearly 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States last year.
The biggest cause of overdose deaths was dangerous synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. But the epidemic involving illegal chemicals grew out of the abuse of highly addictive prescription opioids. A spate of new research reveals that the use and abuse of these prescription drugs have plagued people with disabilities, who often start taking them to treat painful musculoskeletal conditions such as arthritis or a bad back.
A 2017 analysis featured in this blog provided the first estimate of opioid use among people who have disabilities that limit their ability to work. The researchers found that about one in four people applying for federal disability benefits used the medications – a much higher rate than in the U.S. population overall.
Painkillers often do more harm than good because they can increase society’s dependence on disability benefits by impairing lung function, aggravating existing conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, or causing addiction. According to 2021 research by RAND that followed older workers over several years, the opioid users in the study were much more likely to wind up on disability than their counterparts who did not take them.
“Although the pain relief is an important health goal,” the researchers concluded, “the consequences to workers and social programs of powerful prescription painkillers are substantial and long-lasting.”
The isolation and stresses caused by the pandemic are believed to have fueled the dramatic rise in overdose deaths last year. But a long-running cause, prior to COVID, was the decline in U.S. manufacturing employment. Research reported in this blog directly tied the movement of robots onto factory floors to the rise in deaths of despair – from drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide – among men between ages 30 and 54. The study found that automation accounts for nearly one in five overdose deaths in manufacturing counties, which are concentrated in the heavily industrialized Midwest. The researchers said the rate of applications for disability benefits is also higher in these counties.
Opioid abuse in the disability community is happening for the same reason it is pervasive in society: an ample supply of the addictive drugs. This was revealed in a study that located where the disability applicants who abuse opioids live. The parts of the country with more pill mills and doctors who generously prescribe drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone have higher rates of opioid use by the applicants.
Older workers, who turn to the painkillers as the aging process worsens their musculoskeletal conditions, have been hit hard by the opioid crisis. Research that documented big increases in admissions to drug treatment facilities among people over 50 found that admissions for Black-Americans have quadrupled, while white admissions tripled, and Hispanic admissions doubled since the mid-1990s.
But older Black and Hispanic users’ addiction has proved especially difficult to overcome, and they are less likely than whites to successfully complete treatment. Given the surge in admissions in the older population, the researcher said, “this persistent inequity in the likelihood of completing treatment is concerning.”
Urban, rural, men, women, young and old – opioids have seeped into every facet of life. The disability community is no different.
The studies reported herein were derived in whole or in part from research activities performed pursuant to a grant from the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) funded as part of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium. The opinions and conclusions expressed are solely those of the authors and do not represent the opinions or policy of SSA, any agency of the federal government, or Boston College. Neither the United States Government nor any agency thereof, nor any of their employees, make any warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of the contents of this report. Reference herein to any specific commercial product, process or service by trade name, trademark, manufacturer, or otherwise does not necessarily constitute or imply endorsement, recommendation or favoring by the United States Government or any agency thereof.