How a common surgery is contributing to the opioid crisis

By  | 

NEW YORK (CBS) About 5 million Americans have their wisdom teeth removed every year. Now, there's a new warning about how that can lead to painkiller addiction. Here's more on what patients and parents need to know to avoid the dangers of addiction.

Ellen Earley's daughter, Saige, was a young mother doting on her 16-month-old son, Julian.

In 2017, the 22-year-old needed to have her wisdom teeth removed. The dentist prescribed the opioids. Earley says he didn't give Saige any warning.

"No. No warning, no nothing. In fact, he said-- you know I think they gave her a five-day supply-- and he said, 'If you need more, just let me know. Just give a call,'" Earley said.

Saige quickly became dependent, getting several refills before she found something else: heroin. Just 15 months after having her wisdom teeth removed, Saige overdosed and died in an airport bathroom on her way to a fourth round of rehab.

"It was shocking. I mean, because we have this... She was gone. But mostly gone from Julian was-- that was the shocking part," Earley said.

Dr. Chad Brummett studies pain at the University of Michigan. He says despite research showing a combination of acetaminophen and ibuprofen is superior to treat pain, dentists are still prescribing too many opioids to young adults.

"These kids tend to be generally healthy, and for many, dental care, such as wisdom teeth extraction is the first opioid exposure. So if we were to do some back of the envelope math, it could be like 50,000 kids each year becoming new chronic opioid users after something simple like wisdom tooth extraction," Brummett said.

Brummett's research found simply filling an opioid prescription after wisdom tooth surgery more than doubled the odds of continued use among patients who had never used those painkillers before.

In light of the epidemic, the American Dental Association has released updated guidelines recommending the use of alternative pain relievers and maximum seven-day supply when opioids are necessary.

Ellen Earley hopes more families learn about the alternatives to opioids after dental surgery. Almost a year after Saige's death, her grandson keeps asking when his mom is coming back.

"He will take me into her room and he'll say, 'Let's just wait. Let's just wait for mama,'" Early said.

Julian is now 3 and will start preschool this fall.

Brummett, the University of Michigan researcher, says it's still common practice for oral surgeons to write that "backup" prescription, but he says it's misguided and potentially detrimental.

The American Dental Association says after updating its guidelines advising against prescribing opioids, dentists wrote almost half a million fewer prescriptions in 2017 compared to five years earlier.