Pain is a persistent problem in this country. It affects more Americans than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined, according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Pain can be chronic or acute, and can be a precursor to or consequence of a wide range of medical problems. The NIH also notes that chronic pain affects approximately one of every four people in this country.  Some of them are children, and now these children will have access to a powerful and addictive painkiller.

Last month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of the narcotic drug OxyContin in children as young as 11 who regularly experience chronic pain that has not responded to other treatments. FDA officials have noted that the drug has been “massively” used off-label since the 1990s to treat children in severe pain – except with no specific instructions on usage, dosage, timing, or side effects. So, in their view, this latest development is a win.

Except…is it? We live in a country where every day, 2,500 American youth abuse a prescription pain reliever for the first time, and nearly 1 in 20 high school seniors has abused OxyContin, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine.

The FDA’s new ruling on OxyContin is for children between the ages of 11 and 16 – the exact window during which young people are most likely to try drugs or alcohol for the first time.

Enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult every four hours for one month, notes the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). What’s more, NIDA statistics from 2010 also found that almost 1 in 20 adolescents and adults in the U.S. used prescription pain medication when it was not prescribed for them.

There is a conception that because a doctor prescribes a medication, it is safe. And if it is safe for you – hey, it’s probably also safe for your friend, right?

The FDA’s new ruling on OxyContin is for children between the ages of 11 and 16 – the exact window during which young people are most likely to try drugs or alcohol for the first time.  And as the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence notes on its website, after marijuana the next three most commonly used drugs by teens are prescription pain medications: Vicodin, OxyContin, and Adderall.

The American Pain Society estimates, conservatively, that 20 to 35 percent of children around the world are affected by chronic pain. It is a very real, very difficult problem facing parents, physicians, and of course the patients themselves.

Pain in kids can cause emotional and social consequences for the entire family. And I’m sure many families will take great care to ensure their child who needs it uses the OxyContin responsibly. But can we guarantee they ALL will?

For children and for anyone living with chronic pain, strong, addictive prescription medication should be a final and reluctant option after trying other, more integrative paths. 

In adults, these may include spinal manipulation, acupuncture, yoga, and the use of certain herbal products. It can also consist of certain dietary modifications, or talk therapy.

Treating pain in kids may include some of these holistic methods, and other ones too. For instance, at Seattle Children’s Hospital cognitive-behavioral approaches to pain are incorporated into treatment plans. Children learn self-regulatory strategies that may distract them from pain, or change their pain experience through breathing techniques, muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and self-hypnosis. The pain medicine staff at Seattle Children’s also helps kids to adapt and do regular activities despite having pain.

No one should have to live with pain, and yet countless do. But often the pain that is temporarily relieved through painkillers like OxyContin causes more physical and emotional pain down the road: according to NIDA, one in 15 people who take non-medical prescription pain relievers will try heroin within ten years.

Sanctioning the use of this drug for children during their most experimental years does not seem like a risk worth taking – for our kids, and the adults they will become.

No one should have to die in pain either, and opioid painkiller use in children should be restricted to palliative care.