March 15, 2016

​Prescription Painkillers and You

Lately, it seems that deaths from heroin and drug-related crimes fill our news media. When we think of these cases of overdoses and crime, we often think of heroin, but the reality, according to Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimmel, is that “prescription opioid painkillers play a role in more deaths than heroin, cocaine and all other drugs combined.”

The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) states in its 2016 Report on Opioid Addiction that four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers. ”Without the abuse of prescription painkillers,” says A.G. Schimmel, “we probably would not be talking about heroin at all.”

An opioid is a synthetic, prescription painkiller that acts much like an opiate, which is derived from the poppy plant. These drugs reduce your brain’s perception of pain to help relieve it. Common opiates are morphine, codeine and heroin. Common opioids are oxycodone (Percocet, Percodan, OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet, Lortab), pethedine (Demerol), hydromorphone (Dilaudid), and fentanyl (Duragesic). When taken for a long period of time, some people may develop a physical dependency on these drugs that can damage their bodies, their relationships and their ability to lead productive lives.

We’ll use the term opioid here to refer to both the natural and synthetic prescription painkillers. And we’ll talk here about opioid dependency, not abuse, because most people who become dependent on prescription drugs are victims, themselves, of this condition, not abusers.

Opioid dependency is found in every region of our state, among every age group, in every type of community - urban, rural and suburban. It’s possible that you’ve been prescribed an opioid after a surgery, or after breaking a bone or hurting your back. Prescription painkillers are prescribed legitimately every day for all sorts of pain, but, too often, they are used unnecessarily, or for too long, or by the wrong person, or all of these.

Data from the Wisconsin Health Information Organization (WHIO) tell us that Wisconsin doctors prescribed 110 million dollars worth of prescription painkillers between April 2013 and March 2015. They also tell us that, between April 1, 2014 and March 1, 2015, almost 17,000 Wisconsin adults between the ages of 18 and 64 were treated for opioid or barbiturate dependence and there are more who did not seek treatment.

According to the ASAM report, “Women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription pain relievers, be given higher doses, and use them for longer time periods than men. Women may become dependent on prescription pain relievers more quickly than men.” The report goes on to say that, “People often share their unused pain relievers, unaware of the dangers of nonmedical opioid use. Most adolescents who misuse prescription pain relievers are given them for free by a friend or relative.”

Prescription painkillers are often necessary and can be a godsend to people who are suffering but, in some cases, an over-the-counter remedy may be all that is needed.

Before taking a prescription painkiller, discuss its benefits and its risks with your doctor. Do not leave a prescription painkiller where it may fall into the hands of another person, of any age. Do not pour unused drugs into a sink or toilet as they can taint the water supply. Many communities now have drop-off sites where you can deposit unused drugs or ask your pharmacist how to dispose of them.

If you feel you are dependent on prescription painkillers, there are people and places in Wisconsin ready to help you. You can find treatment centers for opioid dependence at the Department of Health Services (DHS) website. Other services can be found on the website of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Your doctor’s office or clinic may also offer counseling and treatment services.

Taking an opioid for severe pain may be just what the doctor ordered, but be careful that dependency on the drug does not lead to even greater pain for you and your loved ones.