Painkiller Addiction is Epidemic

Painkiller addiction, a visible problem in places such as Hollywood, is now epidemic in all corners of the United States, recent studies find.

People in the United States use 80 percent of the world’s opiates, according to Dr. Gordon Irving, medical director for Swedish Pain and Headache Center.

“They are easy to get and grossly misused and abused,” he said. “In 2010 enough painkillers were prescribed to medicate every American adult around the clock for a month.”

The Michael Jackson court case, which centered on the pop star’s fatal overdose of Propofol, highlights this equal-opportunity illness.

“Anybody can suffer from the disorder. There is no personality type. Addiction crosses all races, ages and socioeconomic levels,” said Dr. Allen Hume, a pain management specialist and psychologist at the pain center, which includes a treatment center at Swedish Edmonds.

“You can have everything and be hopelessly addicted.”

Growing problem

In early November, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that prescription painkiller overdoses, of drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, killed nearly 15,000 people in 2008 – one person every 40 minutes at a rate three times higher than in 1999. This category of overdose has eclipsed the numbers of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined.

The CDC reports that Washington state is among the dozen states with the largest number of painkillers sold within its boundaries, between 18 and 27 pounds sold per 10,000 people. Washington’s drug overdose death rate hovers at 14.8 people per 100,000.

When taken appropriately painkillers play an important role in improving the quality of life of select patients. However, more than half of all people who misuse prescription painkillers report getting the drugs from a family member or friend, not a prescription, according to Irving.

The CDC reports that in 2010 about 12 million Americans reported nonmedical use of prescription painkillers in the past year.

Youth at risk

The 2010 Washington State Healthy Youth Survey indicates that 10 percent of 10th-graders and 12 percent of 12th-graders had taken opiates, such as Vicodin, OxyContin or Percocet, in the previous 30 days without a prescription. Tobacco smoking within those two age groups was reported at 14 percent and 20 percent respectively.

John, now sober for 21 years, points to youthful drug use as his inroad to becoming an addict. Through it all he finished high school, graduated college and worked as a musician and an electrician.

“When you are caught in addiction you go against your core values,” said John, who asked that his last name not be used. “Pills just mask problems.”

The beginning of the end of his using came when coworkers intervened, concerned he would die. John went to stay with family in Oregon and tried to quit several times, using different methods. He started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and was off drugs three months later.

“I learned that your problems will follow you wherever you go,” said John, who is now an addiction counselor at a mental health agency.

Monitoring program

Like John’s co-workers, Irving recommends intervention as an important first step. Get the narcotics from the addict and put them in an inaccessible place.

Parents should look in their children’s rooms for drugs.

“It can kill,” Irving said.

In Washington state a new prescription monitoring program began last October. Pharmacists have been collecting information that doctors will have access to in January. Thirty states have similar systems. Linking all that data is expected to cut down on the number of “doctor shoppers” – people who go from doctor to doctor to get a new prescriptions of opiates.

“That move alone will reduce the problem,” Irving said.

Helping recovery

According to health care professionals specializing in the addiction field friends and family pose as a gatekeeper to recovery.

• The first step is to get the narcotics away from the person and put them in an inaccessible place, preferably a locked box.

• The desire to stop taking drugs has to come from the inside. The patient has to want to change his or her behavior.

• For optimal success, identify triggers and situations that might lead to a relapse.

• Change is circular. Much like going to the gym or maintaining a healthful diet, there are relapses.

• Help, but don’t enable. Be supportive in a way that doesn’t allow continued misuse of drugs without accountability.

• Judgment and ultimatums breed resentment. Try to prevent the person from feeling judged and making him or her more accountable.

• Addiction is a family illness. All have to engage in the recovery process. Remember friends and family are powerless in the usage and changing of the person’s behavior.

• Expect addicts to experience several relapses before they can maintain a healthy recovery.

• Relapse isn’t going back to usage. It is about all the things leading up to usage and returning to old habits.

• Above all, offer hope. Don’t be judgmental; addiction is not a matter of willpower.

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