Painkiller Abuse Fuels Addiction Epidemic

We’ve all heard of painkillers like Vicodin and Lortab which contain hydrocodone and acetaminophen, but did you know that in 2010 United States physicians wrote prescriptions for these pain relievers that accounted for more than 99% of the world’s consumption of hydrocodone?

Because these painkillers are so easy to obtain, they are the most widely abused, they also account for large numbers of deaths, substance abuse and addiction, as well as thefts from pharmacies and other suppliers. The misuse and abuse of these prescription painkillers — also called opioid pain relievers — resulted in more than 475,000 emergency room visits in 2009, which was a number that had nearly doubled in a five-year period. More than 12 million people reported using presciption painkillers non-medically in 2010 and this type of use of prescription painkillers costs health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually in direct health care costs.
Ironically, this epidemic is borne from trying to relieve real, physical pain, but because it takes more and more of the painkillers to be effective, the individual can end up suffering unimaginable physical and emotional pain once they try to stop taking these pills. This need to increase the dosage to escape the escalating pain has caused prescription drug overdoses in the United States to rise dramatically over the last 20 years. 

In 2006, overdose fatalities surpassed the number of suicides and by 2009, they exceeded the number of motor vehicle deaths. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2007 that the number of unintentional drug overdoses was approximately 27,000, which was one death every nineteen minutes. In recent years those drug overdose deaths have been driven by increased use of opioid analgesic painkillers and in 2010,12 million Americans, age 12 and older, reported nonmedical use of prescription painkillers the previous year; they were using the drugs just for the “high”.

In Teresa Brunner’s article in the October 2, 2012 issue of entitled “Prescription drug abuse is America’s fasting growing problem”, she writes of a woman she knows named Melissa who is now in recovery from Vicodin addiction.

“I was prescribed pain medication for oral surgery, and I fell in love with the high. It wasn’t long before I was hooked. I then slipped a disc in my back and was given more. Within 6 months I was addicted. I didn’t do anything without taking a Vicodin, and I was having trouble keeping my supply full. The Vicodin numbed all of my physical pain as well as the emotional pain, and anxiety I had experienced for a long time. All of a sudden. It was gone, and I felt great. I didn’t realize it was going to return and be 10 times worse.

My turning point was when I realized that my life had spiraled out of control. My life revolved completely around my addiction and I thought of nothing else. I was high on my wedding day and my honeymoon.”

Melissa knew she needed professional help when she ended up in the ER one night with a severe anxiety attack thinking she had taken too many pills and was overdosing. She went through a 7-day medically-supervised detox which she says wasn’t terribly painful, but was anxiety-ridden.
“I then joined an outpatient program where I go about 10 hours a week to group therapy, as well as weekly visits with my therapist and psychiatrist. I am now sober 104 days. I feel as if I am learning how to live again. It is scary, yet beautiful, empowering and I am gaining control of my life once again.”

Melissa was one of the lucky ones as more people die from ingesting hydrocodone painkillers than from cocaine and heroin combined. 

Once an individual finds they have a problem with the amount of painkillers they are taking a day, it is hard to address their addiction because of fear or embarrassment and because of misinformation about what treatment entails. According to Gary Phillips, MD, President Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, North America, “The truth is that there is a spectrum of options and resources available to people that they may not be aware of, which is why it’s important to take the first step and talk to a qualified doctor and get the facts.” On their web site,, there is a simple tool to help people who are at risk recognize their addiction, plus a physician finder to identify a local doctor specially-trained in treating people with addiction to painkillers.

Dr. Harold Urschel III, Enterhealth Chief Medical Strategist, agrees that if there is any doubt about painkiller abuse, the individual needs to first call an addiction psychiatrist for an assessment because help is available. If the painkiller use is prolonged and is not being taken according to the prescribing doctor’s directions, abuse or addiction to the drug is a possibility. The recommended treatment, available in an inpatient or outpatient setting, should include medical treatments for painkiller addiction which block the effects of opioids, decrease cravings and suppress any major symptoms of withdrawal. Because addiction is a brain disease, the treatment should include outpatient therapy along with a social recovery program during the months it takes the brain to heal. 

With the prescription pill epidemic at a peak, there’s a chance you may know someone who has been caught in the snare of physical pain and subsequent abuse of the very medication prescribed to help them. The problem is treatable, but don’t wait until tomorrow to get help. Recovery can start today.
Information gathered for this article from,,, and
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