Painkiller Abuse: A Dangerous Prescription

Prevent overdose from legal medicines, misused
prescription bottles and pills

The drugs that cause the highest number of overdose deaths in America aren’t street drugs. They are substances you are likely to have — or have had — in your medicine cabinet.

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They are prescription drugs — especially opioid pain medications like hydrocodone (Vicodin®) and oxycodone (Oxycontin® or Percocet®).

Of course, these medications serve an important purpose for patients who use them as prescribed, which often includes the elderly and those in pain near the end of life. The reason they can appeal to people who abuse them has to do with how our bodies respond to them, experts say.

“Our brains are hard-wired to respond to these kinds of chemicals,” says Benjamin Abraham, MD, a pain management specialist at Cleveland Clinic.

While they are powerful tools for managing pain when used appropriately, they can be highly addictive or fatal if abused.

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Also, as these drugs are more often prescribed, their use, and abuse, is also on the rise, experts say. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 20% of Americans have used a prescription medication for non-medical reasons.

According to Dr. Abraham, “Hydrocodone is now the most prescribed medication in the United States, beating cholesterol medications and antibiotics by double.”

The statistics are alarming:

  • Prescription drug abuse is the second most prevalent form of illicit drug use, with marijuana being the first.
  • More than half of the people using prescription drugs for non-medical uses report that they got them from a relative or friend for free. Another 11% bought them from a relative or friend.
  • Young adults are at the most risk with 18-25 year olds being the biggest abusers of prescription opioid painkillers, ADHD stimulants and anti-anxiety drugs.
  • Of the 2.5 million drug abuse or misuse emergency department visits in 2011, 51% involved non-medical use of prescription drugs, an increase of 132% from 2004.

Deaths from prescription drugs have increased

“Sadly, often the first sign that a patient has an addiction to prescription pain medications is death,” says Dr. Abraham. “Overdose is most often caused by taking more than one substance at a time, like pain medications and alcohol.”

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In 2009, 3,000 young adults died from a prescription drug overdose, a 250% increase over 1999.

You can help in prevention of such deaths by doing the following:

  • Always follow your doctor’s recommendations in using prescription drugs.
  • Never change your dosage without talking to your doctor.
  • Never use another person’s prescription or give your medications to others.
  • Always talk to your doctor about possible interactions with other medications or alcohol intake.

It’s also important to explore alternatives to opioid pain relievers for some types of pain, says Dr. Abraham.

“Patients should know that these pain medications have never been proven to improve outcome long-term,” he says. “There are good alternatives to treating pain, including non-opioid pain relievers, injections, surgery and a healthier lifestyle,” he adds.

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