The Painkiller Epidemic

June 17, 2016 / Dr. Michael Brodsky

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Today there are more kinds of pain relievers available to help patients than ever before. But the painkillers used to treat the most severe kinds of pain, called opioids, can have serious and even deadly side effects. In recent years, there has been an epidemic increase in the number of deaths resulting from overdoses of prescription painkillers. In 2014 there were 14,000 deaths from prescription opioid overdoses, and today more than 40 Americans die from a prescription opioid overdose every day. When Hollywood celebrities die from drug overdoses, opioid medications are often part of the root cause.


The effects of opioids are powerful and can easily become addictive, even when the original physical pain has subsided. Two side effects of opioid medicines are particularly dangerous. First, the medicine has a strong sedating effect and, if taken in excess, can cause loss of attention, drowsiness, or even loss of consciousness. Second, and even more dangerous, opioid medicines reduce the brain’s signals to the lungs to keep breathing. The “breathing center” in the brain gets even more sleepy than the rest of the brain, with potentially tragic results.

What makes this problem even trickier is that these medications are prescribed by doctors. Like alcohol, prescription opioids are 100% legal. Opioids can be quite effective in relieving pain in the short term, for example after surgery. But also like alcohol, the risks tend to rise when larger doses are used to obtain relief; when use is prolonged or chronic; and when used along with other substances that can magnify the effects.


For these reasons, it’s important to let every doctor and dentist know if you are taking painkillers, and if so, how much and how often. Doctors and dentists are not always aware of all of the medicines prescribed by other providers. When medicines are prescribed to be taken “as needed,” it can be difficult for doctors to guess just how big a dose that an individual uses each day.


It’s also a very good idea to use a single pharmacy to fill all of your prescriptions. Pharmacies have electronic databases that can detect duplicate prescriptions as well as potential drug interactions, and those problems are mostly likely to be detected if all the prescriptions are housed at a single facility.


Sometimes, patients or their family members notice that more and more opioids are being used, with little relief. Other times, patients or their family members recognize that there is a problem of overuse or abuse of these medications. It’s very important to speak up if you or someone you care about is having a problem with painkillers. Tragically, the risks of “self-medicating” with opioids are high and appear to be rising. The good news is, there are proven ways to help reduce the risks, the cravings, and the consequences of opioid overuse.


If you or someone you care about needs help, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Hotline at 1-800-662-4357.