There were roughly 183,000 drug-related deaths in 2012 alone, and opioid overdoses were the largest category. This isn’t just an American issue, either– those figures come from a compilation of statistics taken worldwide. 2005 saw 22,400 drug overdose deaths in America alone, with nearly 40% of those deaths due to painkillers. What is it about painkillers that make them so likely to be abused to the point of an overdose?
How Painkillers End Up in Users’ Hands
In a perfect world, people would use only drugs for which they had prescriptions and would stop once their prescriptions were used up. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case:
Well-meaning people may let others use their prescription drugs.
Sometime people choose to sell their own medication instead of taking it.
Some people may steal medication from a friend or family member in order to use it recreationally.
Some people may “doctor shop”– a practice where a patient visits multiple physicians and pharmacies in order to get several prescriptions filled at once.
At the end of the day, no matter how they end up in user’s hands, prescription drugs including depressants, painkillers, and antidepressants are responsible for more drug abuse deaths every year than cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines combined.
How Painkiller Overdoses Happen
It’s also worth remembering that even heroin used to be used as an over-the-counter painkiller; in 1895, the Bayer company gave diacetylmorphine the name “heroin” due to its “heroic” ability to dull pain. It’s also worth remembering that people abuse prescription painkillers because they work. They dull pain and produce feelings of euphoria. Unfortunately, while they’re doing this, they can also cause the body to develop a tolerance. Drug abusers may use painkillers the first time, then spend the rest of their time trying to capture the feeling of their first high. Meanwhile, they can end up taking more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect as they did initially. In the end, they may take too much and trigger a potentially fatal overdose.
It’s important to remember that not everyone who abuses painkillers started out that way. A large proportion of people who develop an addiction to painkillers do so after using a legal prescription they legitimately obtained from their doctor.
The Hallmarks of Addiction
Many drug abusers are high-functioning– you may not be able to tell that they abuse painkillers by looking at or talking to them. That said, there are some signs of addiction that both users and those around them may notice:
- They may be unable to stop taking the drug. In many cases, drug abusers have made an attempt to stop that wasn’t successful.
- They may continue taking the drug despite the health problems it is causing them.
- The drug may dictate their social and recreational activities. A drug abuser may turn down a trip out of town, for example, if they fear it will interrupt their supply of the drug.
- They may experience financial hardship related to maintaining their supply of the drug, whether it’s by buying it illegally at an inflated price or paying multiple doctors while “doctor shopping.”
- They may become socially withdrawn or secretive.
- They may lose significant periods of time to using a drug, being high, and then recovering.
- This can negatively impact their work or schooling.
What to Do
Drug users may be tempted to overcome this problem themselves, out of fear or shame. The trouble is, not only is it difficult to kick a drug habit by oneself, it can be very dangerous. Withdrawal symptoms may be intense, including shaking, vomiting, hallucinations, loss of appetite, fever, seizures, and more. Drug withdrawal may even become life-threatening.
Drug users should consider enrolling in inpatient drug treatment. This will place them in the care of competent doctors that are able to treat the physical and mental symptoms of drug abuse and withdrawal. It will also help by removing patients from the people and places that might be encouraging their addiction, allowing them the space to get better without being pressured to continue using. In the end, patients are given the kind of compassionate care that they need to make ending their drug abuse a permanent lifestyle change. Addictions are also lifelong battles– even if someone stops abusing drugs, it’s not possible to “cure” an addiction– but good inpatient drug abuse treatment help patients develop a drug-free lifestyle.