When use becomes abuse: Drug abuse is on the rise and most people can find a stash in their own homes

August 05, 2012|By CHRIS COPLEY |

The newest drug-abuse trend is a bit of a shocker.

The drug is legal, and it's found in more than half the homes in the United States. Abuse is so widespread, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classifies it as an epidemic.

Abusers can be rich, poor or middle class; teens, parents or grandparents. Sometimes, law-abiding people become so addicted, they become criminals in order to get a fix.

This "new" drug is not really new. It is the family of modern pain-relieving medications such as OxyContin, Percoset and Vicodin. Used as prescribed, pain medications can be effective and safe.

But not everyone follows doctors' orders. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an arm of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, said 3 to 5 percent of people who take pain medication eventually become addicted.

And more people are using prescription medications just to get high. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that nearly one-third of people aged 12 or older who used drugs for the first time used a prescription drug for a nonmedical purpose. According to the CDC, in 2011, more people died due to overdosing on legal pain meds than on illegal drugs.

A pill that brings relief to many destroys health and happiness for others.

How bad does it hurt?

Pain is not the same for everyone. People can handle different levels of pain. Plus, sometimes the source of pain is hard to pin down.

"Pain is subjective. We cannot quantify pain," said Dr. Andrea Dumitrache, psychiatrist with Brook Lane Health Services in Frederick, Md.

When patients complain of pain, doctors might ask them to rate their pain on a scale of zero to 10, with zero representing no pain and 10 representing severe, disabling pain. There is no test to confirm what the patient said is indeed true.

As a medical specialty, pain relief is a pretty recent development. Jennifer Reinke, pharmacist with Home Care at Robinwood Medical Center, said doctors now treat pain almost as a disease state on its own.

"It used to be you go to your family doctor and say, 'I have an ache. I have a pain. I have this problem or that problem.' Now they're referring more to pain specialists or pain clinics," Reinke said. "Plus, there's back pain specialists. There's cancer pain specialists. There's spine and headache pain specialists that deal with certain subgroups of patients, so we're seeing a lot more specialized practice in pain management."

Drugs are commonly prescribed for pain. Aspirin is the most commonly available pain reliever; it was originally derived from willow tree bark. Acetaminophen, another effective pain reliever, was derived from coal tar.

But the strongest pain-relieving medications are drugs that use morphine, which is also the active ingredient in opium. These pain-relieving drugs are highly addictive, according to Dr. John Olenczak is a pain specialist with Pain and Spine Institute, a division of Mid-Atlantic Orthopaedics in Hagerstown.

"They need to be properly prescribed and followed with doctors orders," he said. He said doctors need to monitor patients closely to be sure not to overprescribe pain meds. Olenczak also recommended exploring alternatives to pain meds.

Reinke agreed that many patients benefit from other approaches to pain mitigation.

"There's acupuncture, there's herbal medications that people use. Sometimes pain can be from stress. So if you have a headache, it could be from tension," she said. "So there's relaxation techniques. Sometimes chiropractors can reset something that's out of alignment that can help with pain. And therapy — a lot of times depression can manifest as pain."

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