By Dr. Mercola
In the UK, 1 million people are addicted to over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription painkillers and tranquilizers; that’s significantly more than the number addicted to illegal drugs.1
In the US, it’s a similar story. There were four times more deaths among women from prescription painkiller overdose than for cocaine and heroin deaths combined in 2010.2
Legal drug addiction is tricky because it often starts out with a prescription obtained from a doctor. Many people find themselves addicted to painkillers before they even realize what’s happened, often after taking the drugs to recover from surgery or treat chronic back, or other, pain.
Three Factors That Might Increase Your Risk of Becoming Addicted to Painkillers
Painkillers work by interacting with receptors in your brain resulting in a decrease in the perception of pain. They are inherently addictive, as they also create a temporary feeling of euphoria, followed by dysphoria, that can easily lead to physical dependence and addiction. However, why certain people become addicted while others get by unfazed has remained a mystery.
Researchers from the University of Derby set out to determine what might be influencing painkiller addiction and dependence by conducting an anonymous survey of people who had pain and had used painkillers in the last month. They found three predictors that they said identified those most at risk of developing painkiller dependence. It included those who:3
- Used prescription painkillers more frequently
- Have a prior history of substance abuse (often unrelated to pain relief)
- Are less accepting of pain or less able to cope with pain
According to the authors, pain, prior substance abuse and psychological factors may all play a role in a person’s likelihood of addiction. They concluded:
“Based on these findings, a preliminary model is presented with three types of influence on the development of painkiller dependence: 1) pain leading to painkiller use, 2) risk factors for substance-related problems irrespective of pain, and 3) psychological factors related to pain.”
Painkiller Addiction Knows No Bounds
The face of drug addiction in the US and around the globe is changing. You can certainly not gauge who is an addict by looks or occupation. In fact, painkiller addiction spans all ages and walks of life.
For instance, a significant number of older adults, particularly those in the baby boomer generation, are struggling with both illicit and prescription drug abuse.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that the number of people in their 50s who are abusing illicit or prescription drugs more than doubled from 2002 to 2010, going from 2.7 to 5.8 percent in this population. Among those 65 and older, 414,000 used such drugs in 2010.4
Among seniors, the health risks of all medications are increased, because the body takes longer to break down and get rid of the drug than it does in a younger person. As a result, the drug stays in an older person’s system longer, where it can cause even greater damage.
At the other end of the spectrum, one in four teens has misused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, according to survey results from the partnership at Drugfree.org and the MetLife Foundation.5 Prescription drugs don’t hold the same stigma as illegal recreational drugs, even though they can be just as deadly, leading teens to regard the former as a “safe” way to get high.
Prescription drugs have even been described by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as the “drug of choice” second only to marijuana for today’s teens.6
Sadly, some teens pay for this one “bad” decision with their lives. Drug fatalities more than doubled among teens and young adults between 2000 and 2008, and these drug-induced fatalities are not being driven by illegal street drugs. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that the most commonly abused prescription drugs like OxyContin, Vicodin, Xanax, and Soma now cause more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.7
And while men are still more likely to die from prescription painkiller overdose, women are quickly catching up. More than 6,600 women, or 18 women every day, died from a prescription painkiller overdose in 2010. The problem, once primarily seen in inner cities, is now spanning to rural areas, hitting people of all ethnic backgrounds and income levels, from business professionals to single mothers to retirees.
Painkiller Addiction Can Easily Lead to Death
Painkillers (opioids) like morphine, codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl are one of the most commonly abused drug classes. These drugs are not only addictive, they can lead to slowed breathing and death if too much is taken, and the risks are compounded if you add alcohol to the equation.
Many are not aware that pain-killing drugs like fentanyl are actually 100 times more potent than natural opioids like morphine, making the addictive potential and side effects associated with prescription drug use much higher. And it doesn’t always take extremely excessive use, or even very long-term use, to have a fatal overdose.
For many, once you start taking these drugs it sets off a cascade of reactions in your body that make it extremely difficult to stop. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, associate chief of neurosurgery at Grady Memorial Hospital and CNN’s chief medical correspondent, reported:8
“…after just a few months of taking the pills, something starts to change in the body. The effectiveness wears off, and patients typically report getting only about 30% pain relief, compared with when they started. Even more concerning, a subgroup of these patients develop a condition known as hyperalgesia, an increased sensitivity to pain.
As you might guess, all of this creates a situation where the person starts to take more and more pills. And even though they are no longer providing much pain relief, they can still diminish the body’s drive to breathe. If you are awake you may not notice it, but if you fall asleep with too many of these pills in your system, you never wake up. Add alcohol, and the problem is exponentially worse. People who take pain or sleeping pills and drink a couple glasses of wine are playing Russian roulette.”
Because such overdoses now kill more people than cocaine and heroin combined, more US states are now taking action to try and stop this growing problem. As USA Today reported:9
- Alabama has instituted three new laws that give more medical personnel access to the state’s prescription monitoring program database, as well as tighten regulations on pain management clinics and making “doctor shopping” to get multiple prescriptions punishable by jail time
- Indiana instituted new oversight powers to the state attorney general on pain management clinics and is considering mandatory annual drug screening of people prescribed opioids
- Kentucky now requires pain clinics to be licensed and mandates that physicians check electronic prescription records before writing opioid prescriptions
- Washington state has set dosage limits for physicians who prescribe pain medications, and prescriptions over a certain amount must be approved by a pain specialist
- New York has a requirement that physicians and pharmacists check the state’s drug-monitoring program database before prescribing opioids
Managing Your Pain the Drug-Free Way
Many of those addicted to painkillers started taking the drugs not to get high, but to control pain – often back pain. The solution, then, is to avoid taking the drugs in the first place, an option many physicians neglect to offer to their pain patients. If you are suffering from pain, I suggest you work with a knowledgeable health care practitioner to determine what’s really triggering your pain, and then address the underlying cause. If you have chronic pain, try these first, before even thinking about prescription painkillers of any kind.
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is a drug-free approach for pain management of all kinds. EFT borrows from the principles of acupuncture, in that it helps you balance out your subtle energy system.
It helps resolve underlying, often subconscious, negative emotions that may be exacerbating your physical pain. By stimulating (tapping) well-established acupuncture points with your fingertips, you rebalance your energy system, which tends to dissipate pain.
- Astaxanthin: One of the most effective fat-soluble antioxidants known. It has very potent anti-inflammatory properties and in many cases works far more effectively than anti-inflammatory drugs. Higher doses are typically required and one may need 8 mg or more per day to achieve this benefit.
- Ginger: This herb has potent anti-inflammatory activity and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.
- Curcumin: In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added 200 mg of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility.10 A past study also found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids blocked inflammatory pathways, effectively preventing the overproduction of a protein that triggers swelling and pain.
- Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or “Indian frankincense,” this herb contains specific active anti-inflammatory ingredients. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.
- Krill Oil: The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA contained in krill oil have been found by many animal and clinical studies to have anti-inflammatory properties that may be beneficial for pain.
- Bromelain: This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple, including some of the bromelain-rich stem, may also be helpful.
- Cetyl Myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a “joint lubricant” and an anti-inflammatory. I have used this for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards. I used a topical preparation for this.
- Evening Primrose, Black Currant, and Borage Oils: These contain the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.
- Cayenne Cream: Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting the body’s supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmits pain signals to your brain.
- Methods such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation, hot and cold packs, and even holding hands can also result in astonishing pain relief without any drugs.