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Prescription Painkiller Abuse: A growing epidemic

Pain is one of the most common reasons people seek medical treatment. Prescription painkiller abuse is a serious problem and a growing epidemic in the United States. Prescription painkiller addiction often begins benignly. For some people, use escalates slowly. They start with the amount of medication that is prescribed to them. After extended use, the patient develops a tolerance to the medication and needs to take more of the drug to obtain the same effect. Other patients increase their dosage because they like the temporary euphoric effects.

Some patients alter the delivery method of their painkillers to get a “rush” or immediate “high”; they crush the pills before ingesting or snorting the pulverized powder. This is a pathway to drug abuse. Abusers describe feeling a euphoric high followed by relaxation, sedation or sleep. Many people become addicted to the psychological effects of well-being and euphoria from painkillers. There is another type of abuse that begins when someone takes a painkiller for non-medical reasons. This type of user takes painkillers simply for the euphoric effect and/or to treat anxiety, stress, boredom or depression.

The prescription painkiller abuse epidemic sweeps across all parts of the country from big cities, suburbs and rural areas to remote regions in the hills of Appalachia. Many people do not feel painkillers are dangerous because they are legal. Prescription painkillers are powerful drugs that have addictive potential. Any abuse or misuse is serious. Prescription painkillers can also serve as a gateway drug to illegal drugs like heroin (see this article for more info).

According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services, 5.2 million people reported using prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons. The DEA believes that number is actually higher – closer to 7 million. This is a difficult epidemic to quantify as there are a certain number of people with real pain who develop addictions, people who use painkillers recreationally and those who steal painkillers from valid sources.

Prescription drug addicts obtain their medications through a variety of methods – taking drugs from friends or relatives, obtaining excessive prescriptions from one doctor, procuring multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors, forging prescriptions, ordering online, stealing drugs from a clinic and/or buying from a dealer. Some people even make trips abroad to countries like Mexico or islands in the Caribbean where painkillers are easier to obtain.

Painkillers, also known as analgesics, are prescribed for short term and long term pain relief. There are two types of pain relievers: non-narcotic and narcotic. Narcotic painkillers with addictive potential are called opioids or opiates. Patients are usually given the appropriate dose of medication that is adequate to treat their pain without enough potency to give them feelings of euphoria.

If you suspect you or a loved one has a problem with prescription painkillers, look for the following signs:

  • usage increase or increased dosage
  • running out of painkillers and needing a refill sooner than expected
  • ongoing use after the pain has subsided
  • patient arguing with physician about denying painkiller prescription
  • obtaining painkillers from someone other than the physician assigned to manage their pain
  • taking painkillers by dissolving them, crushing them or chewing them
  • defensiveness or lying about amount of medication taken
  • mood swings – shifts in energy, moods and/or concentration
  • lack of emotion, indifference and lack of interest in activities that previously brought pleasure; neglecting responsibilities
  • periods of euphoria followed by periods of lethargy
  • blackouts
  • if someone is in withdrawal from opioid painkillers, they will exhibit flu-like symptoms; the symptoms disappear once they use again

If you or a loved one has a problem with prescription painkillers, please get professional help for treatment. Do not mistake painkiller detox for treatment. Detox is the first step in treatment and recovery from prescription painkiller addiction.

Note: Acute painkiller overdoses should be taken to the emergency room immediately. Signs of painkiller overdose include constricted pupils, clammy or cold skin, confusion, extreme drowsiness, convulsions, slow breathing and/or unconsciousness