At 15 years old Andrea began abusing prescription painkillers. Being an adolescent, a woman living in Denver, now 31 years old, tried alcohol and marijuana with her friends, but only when she has her wisdom teeth removed and was prescribed Percocet that she found what she had been looking for, where her body felt comfortable. During newt 12 years Andrea remained high on opioids. She gave her consent give interview to Canadian Pharmacy about her addiction if her last name is not not mentioned.
For about five years, from 15 to 20 years old, Andrea received 30 pills of Percocet a day, which she got from street dealers. She switched to OxyContin – a stronger painkiller which she first got from doctor in Hawaii whose contacts were in the Yellow Pages. She persuaded him over the phone that she had severe pains and needed the drug, so he sent her OxyContin. Andrea learnt to manipulate doctors as well as herself. She says, “Between accidents and hard work, you are convinced that you are in a lot more pain than you really are.”
With time, her body increased resistance to painkillers and the same dosage no longer worked. Since then she was working to fulfill her need. If she didn’t take a pill within 8 – 16 hours after her last one, she would feel severely sick. She would experience stomach aches, extreme cold and hot flashes, her legs and hands and fingers would become swollen. It would come to the point when she couldn’t even move or take a shower.
Everything was ruined four years ago, when Andrea lost her job, her boyfriend and had to move in with her parents. At that period she already felt as sick as it was possible, and that desperation just broke her down. She tried to quit taking drugs herself, but failed several times. The only way to succeed was to join NA and talk to other addicts and seeing there was a solution and that she would never use the drugs again. They kept me accountable, and I still attend (NA meetings) at present.”
Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic
Case of Andrea represent what sociology professor in University of Colorado, Denver, has called prescription drug abuse epidemic among young people. A recent study conducted by Richard Miech, Ph. D., reports that young people from 12 to 30 are abusing such prescription pain medications like Vicodin, Valium and OxyContin by 40 percent more than previous generations. Deaths from drug abuse, propelled by increased overdoses with prescription narcotics, now outnumber deaths of traffic accidents in the United States, as reported by Los Angeles Times in September, 2011.
According to Times, drug deaths exceeded car accidents deaths in 2009, taking at least 37,485 people’s lives nationwide, as preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. Young people are several times more at danger.
Because of different power of pills, it’s easy to overdose by accident, or create a dangerous combination of pills and alcohol, which can result in convulsions, coma and fatal respiratory arrest. Like any substance that alters mind, prescription drugs can change judgment and reasoning, causing risky driving and other dangerous behaviors. Finally, some scientists consider that immature brains are especially vulnerable to chemicals, and that taking prescription drugs at a young age can cause addictions for life.
Miech’s results are based on data from 1985 – 2009 provided by the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, a representative sampling of about 60,000 respondents. Miech believes that abuse of prescription drug has become an epidemic during the past 10 to 15 years, not only among young people and teenagers, but also among adults. However, people born after 1985 have much higher rates than any other generation at the same age – such facts were found by Miech . Among the main reasons for that is increased availability of drugs.
Since 1997 legal prescriptions for pain medications rose from 20 to 160 million a year – by 4 times. So many people have them all over the house, so it’s easy for children to get to prescription pain drugs. According to Miech data, friends and family are the main source of prescription painkillers for youth.
“The fact that doctors are writing prescriptions may awake false sense of safety and legitimacy,” Miech added. This opinion is widely spread. Andrea agreed that for young addicts, the best way to get drugs is through doctor, because it’s legal and seemingly sanctioned. Miech’s numbers show that abuse of prescription drug is definitely the most active among people with low level of education and income. He notes that celebrities whose deaths are connected to painkiller overdoses, including Heath Ledger and Whitney Houston, are exceptions. Other abusers as a rule come from all socioeconomic groups.
“They come from good families, often with good educations”, said Robert Johnson, a licensed addiction counselor in metro Denver. “They just get mixed up in the wrong crowd, and they’re off to their addiction. Their family doesn’t know what to do. We start with individual and sometimes family therapy and a 12-step program. We try to get them connected to a strong support group.” Dr. Comilla Sasson, working in University of Colorado Hospital emergency room in Aurora, agrees that not any certain kind of kid is at risk; it is all kinds and that’s where difficulties appear. Any child who has access to parents’ drugs at home is at risk of becoming drug abuser.
Miech was greatly surprised by the finding that baby boomers aren’t in the top of prescription drug abuse, as they always have been with marijuana. It appears that today’s youth is the one that really seems to be taking to prescription drug abuse.
In 2009, of all age groups, people of 25 – 34 years made the most amount of visits to emergency department including non-medical use of medications in Denver-Aurora Metropolitan Statistical Area. Drug Abuse Warning Network data show that people in this group made 1 607 visits, or 22.4 percent of all such visits. People from 18 to 24 years had the highest rate of such visits – 465.6 visits per 100 000 population and 54.5 percent of visits to emergency department for drugs were made by female patients, according to data provided by DAWN. On the other hand, people from 55 to 64 made 791 visits, or 11 percent of all visits.
Prescribing Culture has Changed
According to Miech research, today’s liberal prescription trends began in the 1980s and 90s, when two U.S. medical-expert panels released guidelines that “encouraged expanded use of opioid pain medications after careful patient evaluation and counseling when other treatments are inadequate,” as reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The article states that Federation of State Medical Boards supported introduction of model policies to contribute to more compassionate pain treatment by clinicians. States have increasingly complied by approving new rules or creating guidelines or policy statements encouraging improved pain management. But article states that increased compassionate pain treatment resulted in increased abuse.
During a decade (1997 – 2007) since the guidelines were first released, consumption of methadone, hydrocodone and oxycodone per capita in the United States rose by 13 times, 4 times and 9 times, respectively. At the same time increase in legitimate sales of opioids has led to increase in non-medical uses of these drugs. These data were found in the JAMA article.
In the article published in August 1999 – “A Shift in the Treatment of Chronic Pain” – the New York Times tells how many states had begun to protect doctors from prosecution for prescribing to many painkillers guided by the widely held belief that relieving “intractable pain should the medical profession’s higher priority.”
According to report issued in 2009 about opioid drug abuse by the Center for Health Law, Politics and Policy at Temple University Beasley School of Law, increase in prescription of therapeutic opioids had several reasons. The most important were incontrovertible empirical evidence of high levels of untreated pain among patients in the U.S. and other couintries, and general agreement within medical community that chronic pain needed to be treated with more aggressive measures. Availability of new drug preparations and active pharmaceutical marketing efforts also promoted wider use of strong pain medicines.
As well as any other expert interviewed for this article, Miech said that doctors today have a difficult job trying to reach the right balance between helping patients relieve their pain and over-prescribing pain killers.
Sasson, physician of the emergency room at the University of Colorado Hospital, remembers that in 2003, when she started the medical profession, it was something extraordinary to prescribe a patient Vicodin. Nine years later, she was giving it out to patients much more often. The prescribing culture has changed. As Sasson says, patients wanted and expected to get drugs. If you say ‘no’, you become the ‘bad doctor’ who doesn’t care about his patients.
Other experts claim pharmaceutical products producers have no desire to observe reduction in prescriptions, and that insurance company policies may add to the problem. Robert Johnson, the counselor with A New Outlook Counseling in Denver and Lakewood, said that a patient who had injured her back shared this story with him – the doctor, instead of prescribing her pain pills for a week, said that her insurance will cover only 100, and gave her 100.
Johnson evaluated that half of his patients were dependent on prescription-drugs or opioids in 2006 – 2008, when he worked at CeDAR, a Colorado addiction treatment center. His own independent theory about the reason for increased prescription-drug abuse among youth is as follows, “Today’s youth feel entitled to do whatever they want. I’m one of them, who’s been in addiction recovery for 12 years.”
Prescription Drugs Like Loaded Guns
At the University Hospital emergency room, they give out at least one prescription drug a shift, as Sasson says. Many of patients are young people, although the hospital determined numbers by age. In many cases, paramedics respond to 911 calls by victim’s friends or family, who claim that he or she has stopped breathing. Symptoms of overdose also include drowsiness, confusion, nausea and seizures. Paramedics has to introduce an antidote to start breathing process again. “But it’s fine,” said Sasson. “If their friends call 911 just a few more minutes later, they’d be dead, or if our paramedics weren’t doing their job as good as they are, many, many more patients would be dying every year. We got used to it, but it’s scary.”
Like Miech, Dr. Sasson advises parents to treat prescription drugs as if their are loaded guns, and keep them locked up. Even if their kids do not have access or desire to look in your medicine cabinet, there’s a great chance their friends do. Parents protect kids from electrical outlets when they are toddlers, but it doesn’t come to their mind to take the same measures when their children are teenagers. Young brains are more susceptible and much more vulnerable; risk of acuiring addiction is much higher.
Parents Should Talk about Addiction Risk
Experts aren’t sure what it will take to end epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Art Schut, deputy director and chief operating officer at Arapahoe House, one of metro Denver’s biggest addiction treatment programs, said doctors are on the front lines. “When your patients are in chronic pain, the challenge is how to help them relieve their pain in an effective way without developing a dependence on drug.”
Colorado now organized a drug-monitoring registry where doctors can get consultation for patient’s prescription record, but it is not foolproof. The Denver Post recently reported that doctors and pharmacies are checking it only in 10 – 15 percent of the time before prescribing dangerous drugs. Sasson approved registry work, but said it’s still too slow and takes a lot of time. She’d like to see “data integration so that patient’s prescription record appears the same minute she enters the name.”
When it comes to protecting children from getting addicted to prescription drugs, parents should be very attentive for such signs as sleepiness, slurred speech, weight loss and decline in academic performance. Parents should also count how many pills they have remaining and keep them locked up. Don’t give your children a temptation. You wouldn’t leave your savings lying around – so why would you leave prescription pain killers? My Canadian Pharmacy recommends parents to talk with their children about their own history of abuse of any substance.
Arapahoe House’s Schut tells about how important it is to have conversations about addiction risks to children. Same as you talk about how some disease runs in your family, you need to explain genetic vulnerability to addiction in your family. Kids need to be aware that their parents are a source of information for them.