by Angela Sams
Have you ever been prescribed a painkiller to help with surgery recovery or maybe for back pain that just won’t go away? Even if not, it is likely that you know someone who has been on a painkiller medication at some time or another. That likelihood rose steadily between 1999 and 2010, as doctors began turning to a “quick fix” that will treat their patients in an aggressive manner. But, as patients cooperatively swallow their prescribed pills, it is important to consider the downsides of opioids on an individual and societal level.
A recent opinion article in the New York Times indicates that while there has been a “steady increase in the mortality rate of middle-aged white Americans since 1999,” this is not the case in other age and ethnic groups, or even with people in the same age group who live in other countries. Consider this disturbing statistic: “In 2013 alone, opioids were involved in 37 percent of all fatal drug overdoses.” It is clear that opioid overdose is quickly becoming an epidemic, and a major shift in attitude is a key to the problem.
At one time, opioids were used mainly for pain caused by terminal illnesses or as a short-term fix for pain after surgery. However, during the 1990s, drug companies began marketing to doctors, encouraging them to “be proactive with pain and treat it aggressively.” Afraid of being seen as uncaring or reprimanded for not treating a patient’s pain to the best of their abilities, doctors fell for the marketing scheme and began prescribing powerful opioids such as OxyContin.
Though opioids may relieve pain and help a patient recover more comfortably, evidence suggests that they should only be used for short-term treatment, not long-term treatment of nonmalignant pain. There are also many downsides to taking such a medication. This type of painkiller is extremely addictive, may affect mental health, lead to unemployment, and cause poor health in general, to name a few risks. Ironically, using these drugs can also make a patient more sensitive to pain.
So what is the solution to this problem? Should people suffer in pain, rather than take the risks associated with opioid drugs? Actually, the answer may be as simple as taking an over-the-counter medication. In one study, researchers found that when Motrin and Tylenol were combined, they were actually more effective than opioids, not to mention safer. While opioids are still very readily available to patients who are in pain, small steps towards a solution have been taken. For example, the Food and Drug Administration issued a Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategy, ensuring that opioids now contain warning labels. The makers of these drugs must also give training and education that will help doctors prescribe them safely. Certainly, patient awareness is helpful, but only time will tell if physicians can turn this shift in attitude back around, and work towards other, safer solutions for pain management.