Most Americans are all too familiar with the brand names of powerful prescription painkillers. Drugs like Percocet, Dilaudid, OxyContin and Vicodin are so well known that patients frequently ask for them by name. Many patients facing discomfort will do whatever it takes and consume whatever they can get in order to avoid more pain. Our nation constitutes just five percent of the world’s population, yet we consume 80 percent of all opioids.
Wanting to give comfort and aid, doctors are often ready with the prescription pad. Patients who are comfortable often heal faster, and are more compliant with future treatment. But the availability of potent pain relievers and the desire to control patient pain has resulted in a tidal wave of prescriptions for opioid narcotics. American drugstores filled a whopping 257 million prescriptions for the pills in 2009 – 50 percent more than in 2000.
The reason this is such a problem is that legitimate opioid use all too frequently leads to opioid abuse and illicit drug use. At least 30 percent of illicit drug addicts started by abusing prescription meds.
Patients start with real pain and a legitimate prescription. But opioids are incredibly addictive. A percentage of patients start taking more medication than they were prescribed, then take it recreationally, to unwind, to relax. Pretty soon they engage in doctor shopping – visiting several doctors with the same complaint to accumulate opioid prescriptions and maintain their drug supply. When that source dries up, the person may visit several emergency rooms, eventually resorting to buying them on the street.
This pattern is so common that New York State hospital emergency rooms have been restricted to dispensing only three days’ worth of opioids to patients. State officials are faced with the unwelcome task of balancing pain relief against the risk of drug addiction.
Opioids have the illusion of being safe because they are dispensed by medical professionals. The truth is that many times they serve as gateways to serious addiction. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that opioids are six times more deadly than the street drug heroin. We want doctors to be able to treat serious pain with serious medication, but there seems to be a need for more restraint given the serious addiction risk.