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Are Teens with Opioid Addiction Getting the Treatment They Need?


Today’s opioid crisis knows no boundaries, especially when it comes to age.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that “prescription and over the counter drugs [including prescription opioids] are among the most commonly abused drugs by 12th graders, after alcohol, marijuana, and tobacco.” Over the past 15 years, the number of children and teens hospitalized due to opioid poisoning has nearly doubled and it has been widely cited that most adults in treatment for opioid addiction started using illicit substances before the age of 18. These statistics make it clear that there is a need to effectively identify and treat addiction to opioids among young people in order to prevent the consequences of this disease from following them into adulthood, or worse — cutting their lives short.

Unfortunately, young people are not receiving the opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment path most strongly recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics: medication-assisted treatment (MAT). While MAT, which relies on medications to regulate the body’s response to opioids, in combination with counseling and detoxification, has been shown more effective in helping young people sustain their addiction recovery than detoxification and counseling alone, it is highly underutilized due to stigma and barriers in the healthcare system.

Boston University Medical Center researchers found that, “only one in four [young adults ages 13 to 25 diagnosed with OUD]… are receiving potentially life-saving medications for addiction treatment.” These numbers become even more troubling when you take a deeper dive; fewer than 1 in 10 teens aged 16 – 17 and 1 in 50 teens aged 13 – 15 received the addiction treatment medications that could have a significant impact on the success of their recovery.

This disparity can be attributed, in part, to the fact that less than three percent of all U.S. physicians have obtained the waivers necessary to prescribe buprenorphine – one of the few medications used in MAT – and of those physicians, only one percent are pediatricians. Additionally, some physicians may refrain from offering MAT to their adolescent patients because there is a lack of data showing the long-term impact it has on this age group. A lack of data also explains why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved buprenorphine for use by those aged 16 and older, despite a demonstrated need for effective, evidence-based addiction treatment options for younger teens.

To ensure young people have access to the full range of treatment options they deserve, it is necessary to conduct additional research into the risks and benefits of MAT among this demographic. More pediatricians and primary care providers should also be certified to prescribe the full range of FDA-approved medications to treat opioid addiction. Or, better yet, the numerous requirements doctors face before they are certified to prescribe the medications that treat opioid addiction should be removed or lessened (it should be noted, no such requirements exist for prescribing addictive opioid medications).

In the interim, it is up to parents and caregivers, or teens and young people experiencing addiction themselves, to advocate for information about all possible treatment options.
If you’re a parent exploring treatment for your teenager with opioid addiction, here are a series of questions you may consider asking his/her doctor or addiction treatment provider:

  • Is MAT offered in your office/clinic to treat teens with OUD?
  • Which MAT options are available to my child/teenager?
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of using MAT to help my child/teenager attain and sustain recovery?
  • How does MAT fit into my child/teenager’s larger treatment plan?

Ultimately, every individual’s treatment plan will be unique. MAT may not be the right approach in all cases, but it should be considered for any teen with OUD. Given the evidence in its favor, neglecting to consider MAT as a treatment approach only contributes to the acceleration of our nation’s opioid epidemic.

Source: Cori Hammond, M.P.H., The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse

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