Nobody likes living with pain. It’s part of human nature to avoid suffering at all costs. Still, the best intentions sometimes lead to bigger problems. Pain medication was designed to bring people relief from acute or chronic pain. Unfortunately, some of these medications have also caused an untold amount of damage.
The stark reality is that 2.1 million people in the United States suffer from substance abuse related to prescription opioid pain relievers. Even worse, much of the negative impact of these narcotics could have been avoided. There’s no doubt about it ― the dark side of pain medication.
If you have a pain problem, think carefully before you take any medication ― your life may even depend on it. At the end of this article, we’ll also give you tips about how to protect yourself from the dangers of pain medications.
What Are Pain Medications?
There are several classes of pain medications, and some carry more risk than others. For example, acetaminophen (Tylenol) is very safe for treating pain. Yes, if you take too much, it can be toxic to your liver, but this rarely happens unless someone intentionally overdoses.
Another commonly used class of pain medication is the nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). Some examples are ibuprofen, naproxen, aspirin and indomethacin. These drugs are relatively safe but, with prolonged use, they can cause problems like bleeding stomach ulcers or kidney damage.
The strongest, and most dangerous, class of pain medication is the opiate group. These are natural, semi-synthetic or synthetic drugs related to opium. These medications have a high potential for addiction and are the lead players in a complex tragedy that has affected millions.
Modern human societies tend to seek comfort. We like to have things like central air conditioning, heating and comfortable homes. When we get sick or injured, the last thing we want to do is suffer. From the medical doctor’s point of view, they want to end suffering too.
Western culture also relies a lot on convenience. That’s why we have remote controls, drive-thru fast food and online delivery services. When it comes to treating pain, it means we look for the fastest, most effective way to get relief.
This combination of seeking comfort and convenience isn’t necessarily bad, but if left unchecked, things can go wrong. In the case of the pain relief drug industry, there have been some disastrous consequences, exposing the dark side of pain medication.
May Start Innocently
The scenario is all too common. You strain your back overdoing it. The pain is intense, so you see your doctor. After examining you, it’s clear that you’re in a lot of pain, so your physician writes you a prescription for “something strong.”
Still, the pain doesn’t let up. So, you return to your doctor, and he or she prescribes you more drugs and sends you to physical therapy. Meanwhile, the drug is working on receptors in your brain that not only relieve pain but also generate a biologic drug addiction. The next thing you know, even though your pain is gone, you find yourself craving the pills.
Big Business & Bigger Problems
Up until about the year 2000, prescription narcotic drugs led to about 200 overdose deaths per month in the United States. Then, suddenly, that number began to climb mercilessly to more than 1,000 deaths per month in 2015.
One of the reasons named for this increase is that pharmaceutical companies began to promote these medications much more aggressively. In 1992, prescription opiate drug sales totaled around $1 billion. By 2015, sales reached $10 billion, which is a 1,000% increase. In 2012, there were 793 million doses of opioids prescribed in the state of Ohio alone.
Aggressive ― and misleading ― marketing helped cause an explosion in the narcotics industry. One glaring example was in the case of Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin. In 2007, the company and key executives pleaded guilty to criminal charges that they misled regulators, doctors and patients about the pain killer’s risk of addiction and abuse potential. They told doctors, who then told their patients, that the pills were not that addictive. They could not have been more wrong.
Many other drugs like OxyContin were marketed heavily to doctors, without giving them proper training and information about the risks. Combined with our culture’s entrenched desire for comfort and convenience, these drugs flew out the door and into the streets.
But the damage didn’t stop there. It got much, much worse, exposing the dark side of pain medication.
Narcotic Drug Addiction Epidemic
As more of these pain medications were prescribed, some people inevitably became addicted to them. There was also increased recreational use of these drugs. For example, some of these pills can be crushed and snorted to deliver a heroin-like high.
The problem is that with substance addiction comes an increased tolerance and desire for the drug. This means you need more of the drug to feel normal. If not, your body produces very unpleasant withdrawal symptoms like:
So, what do you do? You go looking for more drugs. Normally honest people will lie to doctors about pain to get more drugs. If their doctor denies them, the addicted person hops from doctor to doctor seeking pain meds. When the supply of doctors dries up, the drug seeker goes to the streets. At this point, the person has little control over their actions and will do nearly anything to get narcotics ― even to the point of injecting heroin he or she bought from a stranger.
Even more disturbing is that the addiction causes you to seek the strongest supply possible as your body demands it. You might even be attracted to a drug supply known to be deadly since it will certainly satisfy your craving for the drug. Sound farfetched? It’s not uncommon for paramedics to respond several times a day to the same person overdosing on heroin.
In 2015, the total number of deaths in the U.S. from opioid overdose was more than 30,000. Deaths from heroin alone were nearly 13,000, shedding light on the dark side of pain medication and the devastating consequences it can have.
Murky Underworld & White Coats
Some may think of back alleys and shady drug dealers when imagining how addicted persons get their supply. Even though this kind of activity is real, there are many scenarios that might surprise you in the $65 billion global drug trade industry.
Consider this ― many doctors, nurses and pharmacists participate in “pill mills” that sell narcotics illegally. These professionals make up fake medical reasons to get Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance to pay the bill. Recently 412 people, including health care professionals, were charged in healthcare fraud schemes worth $1.3 billion. So even a person in a white coat might be a drug dealer.
“In some cases, we had addicts packed into standing-room-only waiting rooms waiting for these prescriptions,” acting FBI director Andrew McCabe said. “They are a death sentence, plain and simple.”
Turning the Corner?
The medical world has not been blind to the opioid epidemic. There have been many initiatives to educate doctors and reduce the quantity of narcotic prescriptions. Also, the number of addiction treatment facilities has increased dramatically. The pharmaceutical industry is also trying to do its part.
Thankfully, it appears as though the number of narcotic prescriptions is falling. Some say this is an early sign that things are changing, but the number of deaths due to overdose continue to rise.
What Should I Do?
First of all, if you think you might have a problem with addiction to opiates, get help right away. You can call Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).
Also, if you experience an injury or pain problem, ask questions when you go for medical help. Some things to ask are:
- Is the medication being prescribed potentially addictive?
- What other possible side effects does the medication have?
- Are there alternative, non-addicting medications available for my condition?
- What other modalities, such as physical therapy, can I try to relieve my pain?
Pain-free Is a Myth
In many ways, the human desire to eliminate all suffering has been a key driver of the narcotic epidemic. When we get hurt, we want to be 100% pain-free. Unfortunately, by seeking to take away all the pain, a lot of even worse suffering has been created. The pharmaceutical industry’s goal to make more money should also be remembered as something that can lead to much harm.
The drug plague that has affected all classes of people invites us to pause and reflect. Can I stand a bit more suffering to avoid a much bigger problem later? What options are there beside pills? Do I have to put comfort and convenience above all other things?
Seek True Health
Of course, we don’t need to look for ways to hurt intentionally, but our relentless pursuit to be “pain-free” has led many down the wrong path. Nobody’s life can be 100% free of suffering. If we give up this unrealistic obsession, then we can make wise decisions that lead to health preservation.
America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse
Are Pharmaceutical Companies to Blame for the Opioid Epidemic? Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2017/06/lawsuit-pharmaceutical-companies-opioids/529020/
Heroin deaths surpass gun homicides for the first time, CDC data shows. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/12/08/heroin-deaths-surpass-gun-homicides-for-the-first-time-cdc-data-show/?utm_term=.949deae4ce96
US charging 412 in health fraud schemes worth $1.3 billion. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/wireStory/us-charging-412-health-fraud-schemes-worth-13-48612325