(The full version of my latest Addiction and Recovery column in the Times Herald-Record.
By Bob Gaydos
Painkiller pills have dominated the news on addictive drugs over the past month:
- A report from the Centers for Disease Control printed in the Journal of the American Medical Association stated that prescription drug overdose deaths had increased for the 11th straight year, with pain killers such as Oxycontin and Vicodin being the chief culprits in 75 percent of the deaths, most of which were not suicides, according to the report.
- A new law, aimed at fighting “doctor shopping” for hydrocodone, an addictive opiate that is the main ingredient in many popular pain medications, took effect in New York state. The law elevates hydrocodone from a Class III to a Class II drug and establishes an electronic database for prescription pain medications, accessible to doctors and pharmacists. It also places stricter requirements on obtaining and filling prescriptions for them, including eliminating automatic refills.
- In the Town of Woodstock, N.Y. , Wayne Longmore was stripped of his medical license after pleading guilty to writing thousands of prescriptions for non-medical use of hydrocodone.
- A Rockland County, N.Y., doctor, David Brizer -- dubbed “Dr. Feel Good” -- was indicted on 55 counts for allegedly selling thousands of prescriptions for painkillers to drug dealers in Rockland and in Manhattan.
All of this adds up to the inescapable conclusion that prescription pain medications -- legal drugs -- have rapidly become a major drug addiction problem, as the CDC indicated. Hydrocodone is especially troubling since it is, in effect, legally prescribed heroin. Those who become addicted to it, whether by becoming too dependent on it while dealing with legitimate pain issues or, as with many young people, by stealing it from their parents’ medicine cabinets, sometimes turn to heroin itself, because it is cheaper than the pain medications.
Several issues arise from this conflux of stories. Among them:
- The medical community needs to do a much better job of teaching its members about the risks of prescribing addictive pain medications too readily. Individual doctors need to do a better job of monitoring their patients’ use of the medications, while also making sure not to make life even more painful for those who truly need the medications.
- Society needs to rely less on legislation to deal with drug addiction and focus more on getting better educated on the subject. For example, New York’s new law, while well-intended as a way to fight addiction to painkillers by reining in pill-liberal doctors, may also increase the cost of the drugs to consumers and will probably make life more difficult for those, such as cancer patients, needing regular pain medication prescriptions. It is also likely to send some people to the streets to buy cheaper heroin instead. Also, parent groups have complained that, while the state has focused on cutting off the easy flow of pills, it doesn’t have enough drug rehabs to treat young people addicted to prescription medications.
- Treatment specialists say parents need to pay closer attention to their prescription medications at home and not assume that their teen-aged children will not steal them. They urge parents to talk to children about the dangers of abuse and of mixing the pills with other medications, a major factor in the deadly drug overdoses.
So, more laws? More education? More treatment? As society continues to struggle with finding the best approach to reducing addiction to pain medications, perhaps the most important thing everyone can do to reduce the number of fatal medication overdoses is learn to recognize the signs of addiction to prescription painkillers:
- Continued use of the drug, even after the pain has ceased.
- Complaining about vague symptoms to get more medication.
- Lack of interest in treatment other than medications.
- Using prescription pills prescribed for others
- Physical withdrawal symptoms when doses are missed.
- Flu-like symptoms, such as joint and muscle aches and insomnia.
- Mood and behavior changes, such as becoming agitated or anxious.
- Secretive or deceitful behavior trying to obtain the drug.
- Using more than the recommended amount of medication.
- Developing a high tolerance, requiring more pills for the desired effect.
- Withdrawal from family, friends and society.
- Financial problems associated with buying ever more pills.