When we enter into recovery, we commit to total abstinence from all mood and mind altering substances. We learn that regardless of our drug or drink of choice, we will never be able to safely use chemical substances in any form. Most of the time, this ‘golden rule’ is relatively straightforward – we can easily move through our lives avoiding bars and opium dens and crack houses. Sometimes, however, the lines can get a bit blurred. Say, for example, we undergo a very intensive surgical procedure – one with a long and painful recovery. Say the doctor prescribes us pain medication to help get us through the worst of it. What do we do?
Safe Prescription Painkiller Use
Truthfully, there is no right answer – the answer will vary from case-to-case, and will largely depend on the comfort level of the individual involved. Some may choose to remain abstinent, asking for a high-dosage ibuprofen (or another non-narcotic painkiller). In many cases, individuals who are recovering from an opiate addiction (either to prescription painkillers or to heroin) will choose to avoid narcotic medications at all costs. Some may have their sponsor or another trusted sober support hold onto the medication, providing them with the proper dosage whenever the pain becomes too great. It is always important, however, to handle the situation with adequate care and precaution. Prescription painkillers are responsible for more fatal overdoses on an annual basis than any illicit drug, and over the course of the past several years, rates of painkiller abuse and addiction have skyrocketed to devastating proportions.
The Prevalence of Painkiller Abuse
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, of the 20.5 million Americans ages 12 and older who struggled with a substance abuse disorder in 2015, over 2 million had a substance abuse disorder involving prescription painkillers. In recent times, drug overdose became the leading cause of accidental death in the US, with a total of 52,404 lethal overdoses in 2015 alone. A recent CDC report found that more people died of drug-related overdoses in 2014 than in any other year on record – and that over 60 percent of the total fatalities came from opioid overdose. Prescription painkiller addiction is clearly driving this epidemic. Of the 52,404 deaths in 2015, 20,101 were directly linked to painkillers – far fewer overdose-related deaths (12,990 in total), were directly linked to heroin. With all of the recent media focus on the nationwide heroin epidemic, it is easy to overlook the root of the problem. In truth, the rampant overprescribing of opioid narcotics has lead to a staggering increase in heroin addiction cases across the nation.
In the year 2012, a total of 259 million prescriptions were written for opioid painkillers – that is more than enough to allot every American adult with his or her own bottle of pills. It is estimated that 4 out of every 5 heroin users initially began misusing prescription painkillers before advancing to intravenous drug use. A study conducted on individuals who were in treatment for opioid addiction found that the vast majority of respondents (94 percent in total) switched over from painkillers to heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain”. As state and local governments begin to crackdown more and more on the distribution of narcotic painkillers,
Painkiller Abuse Amongst Adult Males
Heroin addiction most frequently affects young, white males. Why? Prior to the 1990s, prescription opioids (synthetic opioids designed to mimic the effects of opium) were almost exclusively reserved for individuals in chronic and excruciating pain – namely cancer patients. Some of the most commonly prescribed opioid painkillers were Vicodin, fentanyl, Percocet, and Opana. Seeing as the chemical makeup of such prescriptions is so precariously close to that of heroin, they were truly only reserved for those living with unbearable pain. Nowadays, however – or up until very recently, at least – potent narcotic painkillers are being handed out like candy to whomever convincingly complained of back pain or a toothache.
A movement in the mid-90s lead by pain advocacy groups and prescribing physicians began pushing for the use of potent narcotic painkillers in the treatment of other chronic pain-related conditions. Within several years, prescription painkillers became more prevalent then they ever had been. Drugs such as Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and Percocet began being produced in mass quantities. It became common practice to prescribe painkillers to young men involved in high school or college-level sports; men who had either sustained an injury (minor or major), or who had undergone a minor surgery as the result of a sport-related injury. Because of the highly addictive nature of these pharmaceuticals, many of the young men who were prescribed such medications unwittingly developed physical dependencies over time. Soon, increasing rates of painkiller-related overdose instigated widespread government crackdowns on distribution. Unfortunately, removing a chemical substance from an addicted individual will not cure his addiction. The majority of men who had developed intense dependencies simply went in search of a viable alternative. As previously discussed, heroin was widely available and could be purchased for a fraction of the cost that painkillers were now being sold for (as demand increased and availability dwindled, street value rose dramatically). Thus, a generation of heroin addicts was born.
Painkiller Abuse Amongst Women and Adolescents
As the rampant spread of opiate addiction continues to intensify, more and more demographics are being affected. In 2015, it was estimated that 276,000 adolescents used prescription painkillers for recreational purposes – and that nearly half of those individuals (122,000) had developed a severe physical dependency. In the same year, it was estimated that 21,000 adolescents had tried heroin within the past year, and that 5,000 were regular heroin users. Over the course of the past two years, these numbers have only increased. It is clear that prescription painkillers pose a major threat to the youth of America, not only because they act as a gateway drug for their highly lethal and illicit relative, but because – in lieu of recent crackdowns – they are still being grossly overprescribed. Sadly, all that most adolescents have to do in order to get their hands on some narcotic painkillers is check the medicine cabinet in their parents’ bathroom or at their grandparents’ house.
The opiate epidemic has also devastated the female community. Women are more likely to have chronic pain than men, and thus are prescribed painkillers at a much more frequent rate. It has also been found that women tend to develop serious chemical dependencies more quickly than men, especially where prescription painkillers are concerned. Between the years 1994 and 2007, roughly 48,000 women died as a direct result of prescription painkiller abuse. Overdose deaths related to prescription painkillers increased more than 400 percent from 1999 to 2010 amongst women, and 237 percent amongst men.
Painkiller Addiction Recovery
Many mistakenly believe that because a licensed physician prescribed the medications, they are always safe to use. While using prescriptions as they are prescribed is typically a safe bet, those with a history of or a predisposition to addiction will want to exercise extreme caution when taking narcotics of any kind. Painkiller addiction devastates mental, emotional, and spiritual health, and often leads to a host of serious (sometimes lethal) physical health issues. As is the case with all other chemical substances, the body will adapt to the presence of the painkillers over time. Once an individual ceases use, he or she will undergo intense physical withdrawal. Because symptoms of withdrawal can be exceedingly dangerous, it is always wise to undergo the process in a medical detoxification facility.
Once an individual has physically detoxed, it is a good idea for him or her to check into a long-term, residential treatment program. This is the best way to ensure prolonged sobriety, and will help to set a solid and lasting foundation for lifelong recovery. If you struggle with painkiller addiction, or know someone who does, there is help available. There are also several precautions you can take now to ensure that your loved ones are never exposed to the devastation of opioid abuse. Properly dispose of unused and unwanted medications, and make sure that all prescription painkillers are stored in a safe (and unreachable) place. If someone you know is exhibiting signs of painkiller addiction (noticeable changes in mood, appearance, or behavioral patterns), contact an addiction specialist or interventionist to find out what steps you can take.
Article written by Next Chapter Addiction Treatment
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