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According to Consumer Reports, opioid prescriptions (methadone, morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, for example) have increased 300 percent in the last decade. “Vicodin and other hydrocodone-combination painkillers are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S.,” according to the report.
Perhaps this is why every day 44 people die of opioid overdose and more than 7,000 are admitted to emergency rooms to treat addiction. In fact, America’s burgeoning heroin epidemic is largely fueled by people hooked on pain pills; they turn to reduced price street drugs once their prescriptions dry up. It is imperative that we take a closer look at Big Pharma’s role in pushing prescription opioids since the industry is directly connected to heroin use and a rising tide of people addicted to prescription drugs.
Painkillers Aren’t a Solution for Long-Term Pain
Painkiller abuse has become a medical epidemic in the United States, yet there seems to be little to no enforcement of regulations. Far too many doctors are prescribing painkillers to their patients without considering the long-term consequences of their actions. These drugs are habit-forming, and once addiction has taken hold, it can quite literally destroy the patient’s life within a very short period of time. Although many people do require painkillers to treat debilitating and painful illnesses and injuries, many more are abusing the drugs and using them to get high. Still others get hooked on them after a prescription for a minor injury but find the doctor will continue to refill the prescription.
Opioids are only beneficial in short-term pain relief. A 2010 study examined 1,000 people who were suffering from chronic pain. Despite their opioid use, the patients still suffered “moderate-to-severe pain that interfered with their everyday activities.” Moreover, there is little evidence that long-term opioid use is safe, but there is plenty of evidence supporting the conclusion that higher dosages and long-term use leads to addiction. So, why are doctors still prescribing opioids long-term for their patients, especially when they know better than anyone else that these drugs are addictive?
It is likely we’re seeing a similar phenomenon to what occurred when Big Tobacco received virtual impunity for decades before doctors and medical experts realized the connection between cigarettes and lung cancer, heart disease, and other serious health complications. Here, the situation is a bit different, and possibly more chilling, as it is precisely doctors and medical experts who are allowing painkillers to be so rampantly prescribed.
The Health Consequences of Prescription Drug Abuse
Brain damage is a possible consequence of long-term opioid abuse, as is impaired cognitive functioning. Some patients develop an increased risk of shortness of breath and cardiac problems. Although some patients do not suffer from these consequences, many do.
The effects of opioid abuse, as reported on Healthline.com, include:
- Infertility; hormonal problems
- Irritability and unpleasant personality changes
- Weakened immune system
- Increased risk of HIV or infectious disease
- Increased risk of hepatitis
- Collapsed veins or clogged blood vessels
- Risk of choking
Disciplining Doctors and Regulating Big Pharma
If we want to stem the tide of addiction in this country, particularly with regard to prescription painkillers, we will have to stop doctors from over-prescribing. One way to do this is by reigning in the pharmaceutical industry itself and mandating that stringent regulations are placed on addictive drugs. Both Medicare and CVS are doing their part by identifying doctors who prescribe too much and revoking their privileges to do so. Medicare recently began kicking out doctors who abuse their prescription pad while CVS revokes their ability to dispense medicine from their pharmacy.
Doctors—and the pharmaceutical companies that sometimes enable and fund them—who overprescribe are endangering the health of their patients. It is important that society recognizes the issue and takes steps to remedy it. In the meantime, drug-addicted patients do have some opportunities to get help—including drug rehab, counseling, and treatment for dual diagnosis, where addiction is accompanied and exacerbated by depression or other psychiatric illness.