Attacking the problem

August 16, 2017
Harold Tu discusses something with a healthcare worker.

Over the last 15 years, addictions to prescription opioids and drug-related deaths have increased dramatically. It’s estimated that 91 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses.

Dentists find themselves caught in the middle of this epidemic. They have been frequent prescribers of opioids to young people—mainly to treat pain for wisdom tooth removal—and that often becomes their first experience with narcotics. In addition, more than half of opioids prescribed to patients following dental surgery are left unused, leading to unintended abuses down the road.

The U of M’s School of Dentistry is now at the forefront of fighting opioid addiction. They’ve established a new protocol mandating the use of non-steroidal, anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) as the first course of pain relief (think Advil and Tylenol), which have been shown to provide equal pain relief without misuse, abuse, and addiction problems.

Harold Tu established the mandated non-opioid approach last fall to manage acute dental pain for the School of Dentistry’s Division of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, where he is the director. 

Since then, the school has seen a significant drop in the number of opioid prescriptions and the number of pills per prescription. And U of M dentists have not seen a significant increase in the number of patient requests for additional pain medication, which suggests that the new approach manages pain effectively.

“I think everyone is aware of the devastating impact addiction has on society,” Tu says. “This should force us to rethink our use of opioids as the primary treatment for acute pain. We can make a difference in the opioid epidemic, and we are making a difference right here in Minnesota.”