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Painkiller use in youth linked to mental health issues and addiction later in life


A photograph of various different medication pills
freestocks | Unplash

​ TL;DR

  • A study found that young people who receive repeat prescriptions for painkillers to manage chronic pain may be at an increased risk of developing substance misuse problems and poor mental health in adulthood.

  • The study also found that patients with learning disabilities and autism were overrepresented in the cohort receiving repeat prescriptions without a chronic pain diagnosis.

  • The study's authors caution against the potential risks associated with the over-reliance on painkillers and emphasise the need for a more nuanced approach to pain management.

A new study has raised concerns about the potential long-term effects of painkiller use in children and young people.


The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Liverpool and St George's, University of London, analyzed anonymized medical records of over 850,000 individuals aged 2 to 24.


The findings suggest that those who receive repeat prescriptions for painkillers to manage chronic pain may be at an increased risk of developing substance misuse problems and poor mental health in adulthood.

The study's key findings include:

  • A 46% increase in the risk of mental illness in adulthood among those who had chronic pain and were prescribed painkillers compared to those with chronic pain who did not receive painkillers.

  • An 82% higher risk of substance misuse in adulthood among those who had chronic pain and were prescribed painkillers compared to those with chronic pain who did not receive painkillers.

  • An overrepresentation of patients with learning disabilities and autism in the cohort receiving repeat prescriptions without a chronic pain diagnosis, suggesting a potential issue of overprescribing in a vulnerable group.


While acknowledging the importance of effectively managing chronic pain in young people, the study's authors caution against the potential risks associated with the over-reliance on painkillers. They emphasize the need for a more nuanced approach to pain management that considers both the immediate and long-term implications of various treatment options.

Professor Reecha Sofat, Chair of Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics at the University of Liverpool, underscores the importance of providing targeted support for young people with chronic pain:

"Regular use of painkillers to ease chronic pain may lead to an unintentional over-reliance on pain medication in adult life. Exploring when the right time is to refer these young people to specialized pain services for more targeted support will also be a vital factor when revamping pain management practice."

This study highlights the need for a balanced approach to pain management in young people, one that effectively addresses their pain while also considering the potential long-term consequences of various treatment options. Further research is needed to fully understand the complex relationship between painkiller use in youth and mental health outcomes later in life.

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