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Opioid painkillers: A prescription for disaster

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By Sunday, Nov 12, 2017 Viewpoints

The statistics are frightening. But they don’t begin to tell the story. Behind each fatal overdose is the tragedy of life lost and a family in grief. And the problem of addiction has infiltrated nearly every facet of daily life.

David Main’s phone can ring up to 30 times a day. The voice on the line is usually someone desperate to find help with an opioid crisis.

“There have been many, many, many times when somebody will call me for help and they’ll die while waiting,” said the former addict who now works at the New England Addiction Outreach and Banyan Treatment Center in Wilmington. “I’m saying within a 24-hour period.”

Main runs out of fingers when counting the friends he’s lost to opioids.

“Is it getting better? No. No. no,” he said. “It’s getting worse.”

How did the problem spiral out of control in such a short time?

A big part of the reason, experts say, is a new pathway to addiction, with users escalating from legally prescribed painkillers for an injured knee, a surgical procedure or something as minor as a root canal.

Since 1999, sales of prescription pain medications have increased by 300 percent, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM). In 2012 alone, 259 million prescriptions for pain medication were written in the United States — more than the adult population of the country at that time.

Overused or over prescribed painkillers can lead to dependence and addiction, followed by a switch to the more affordable alternative — street heroin.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 80 percent of those who used heroin for the first time had a history of misusing prescription opioids. In 2015, nationwide deaths involving prescription opioids increased by 3,000 to 22,000 or 62 per day, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

And despite a landmark Massachusetts prescription drug law that took effect in July of 2016, the use of legally prescribed opioids is still high. State health officials report that within the first quarter of 2017, more than 4.4 million solid dosage opioid units were prescribed in Bristol County among 30,672 individuals.

“Culturally, we struggle with the concept of pain,” said Dr. Jennifer Pope, chairman of Emergency Medicine at St. Luke’s Hospital. “I think people think pain is a bad thing … (that) you should have zero pain. That’s not the case. Not all pain is bad pain. And I think people are very much saying I have pain. I’m going to go to the doctor and the doctor has to do something to get rid of my pain.”

A NIDA study revealed that anywhere between 21-29 percent of patients who were prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them. The most commonly prescribed opioids are methadone, oxycodone and hydrocodone (Vicodin).


The writer is Chaplain at Fairview Hospital. She can be reached at Platformtorecovery.com.

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