Prescription drug abuse accounts for a large part of the individual drug addiction in our country. This problem has been growing significantly in the past ten years and accounts for over half of the calls that are received by help-line websites that provide referrals to alcohol and other drug treatment. One of the organizations that provides assessment and referral to drug rehab centers, has observed a trend of average, middleclass people increasingly becoming addicted to opiate painkillers and being taken by surprise that they cannot end their fierce physical addiction. The majority of these individuals have become addicted to these opiates without realizing the severity of their addiction and the hardship they are encountering in their attempts to confront the withdrawal symptoms associated with these opiate painkillers. These patients are surprised to realize that they have become candidates for drug rehab services.
Physicians, pharmacist and law enforcement have recognized this trend in “legal” drug abuse and have addressed this problem by creating data-bases that can identify those individuals that are caught in this form of addiction and are shopping many different doctors to get the prescriptions they need to “feed” their addiction.
In September, 2009, California joined 37 other states in creating a prescription drug monitoring systems. The Attorney General of California unveiled a secure Web site that tracks prescription drug use, allowing doctors to log-on to this database to see what other prescriptions their patients may be taking. Law enforcement is also tracking the site’s data to spot trends in drug abuse.
Prescription drug abuse is very costly for the state and health insurers. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health estimates 20 to 30 percent of California’s drug abusers primarily use prescription drugs. In 2008, the state attorney general’s office targeted the California’s top 50 doctor-shoppers, who visited multiple doctors to collect prescriptions for large quantities of drugs. As a result, dozens of arrests were made, including a 53-year-old man who visited 183 doctors and 47 pharmacies to get a variety of painkillers.
It is estimated that billions of dollars are spent each year on diverted and abused prescription drugs in the United States. Certainly these tracking measures will stop some of the blatant abusers, but it doesn’t address the basic social problems that are leading the public to seeking and taking strong, opiate painkillers and the willingness of doctors to readily prescribe these “medicines” without providing adequate education and warnings that would help patients question the wisdom of using highly addictive drugs to relieve their perceived or actual pain.
A very small percentage of doctors are knowledgeable of alternative methods of relieving moderate to severe pain. Doctors, on the whole, are not educating their patients on how these painkillers are historically used for severe pain experienced after surgery or from broken bones, and not to be used for chronic back pain or headaches. Emergency room doctors and general practitioners use the subjective testimony of their patients to document the severity of their pain by asking them to rate the pain of their identified problem on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the most severe pain. Since most people who have disturbing amounts of pain will say whatever is needed to find relief and since pain is a subjective problem, patients notoriously rank their pain as severe. However, if these patients were given the reality on the downside of taking these drugs on a continual basis, they would many times ask for other types of treatment to relieve their discomfort. Doctors need to look for remedies that don’t lead to addiction and go towards the source of the pain rather than covering the sensations of pain with drugs that also hinder one’s awareness, feelings and ability to think clearly. Prescription drug abuse is a major public health problem that needs to be comprehensively addressed and not just at the level of violating the law. These patients need the education and awareness to compel them to find solutions other than drugging away their discomfort.
The use of opiate painkillers limits the body’s ability to communicate with the source of the pain and, therefore, greatly limits any natural repair that can occur.
Department of Drug Education, Prevention, and Information
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