Prescription drug abuse at epidemic levels
November 20th, 2012
Omaha, NE – The abuse of prescription drugs is at “epidemic” levels in Nebraska and around the country, and some doctors here are calling for better tracking of pain medicine to keep it out of the wrong hands.
Prescription pain medicine today has become as popular as heroin in the 1990s. That’s according to Doctor Aly Hassan, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Hassan is echoed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which lists abuse of prescription drugs as a national epidemic. Part of the reason, Hassan said, is the drugs’ widespread accessibility and social acceptance. “It’s much more safe (socially) and much less stigmatizing to abuse pain medicine than use heroin,” he said. “And also the cost, the legal penalties of abusing these medicines are less problematic than heroin.”
Hassan said the 1990s marked a fundamental shift in the treatment of pain. Doctors began to consider pain as the “fifth vital sign” – as significant to health as body temperature and blood pressure. And, Hassan said, that’s true. Pain is not just a quality of life issue, he said, it’s a health issue. “It’s a human right for every patient to see their pain managed adequately,” he said, “but this doesn’t mean that we have to compromise on the safety of the prescription practices.”
“We want to make sure the pain is managed adequately, but at the same time ensuring that the dangerous medicines are not in the wrong hands,” he said.
For people currently taking pain medicine, Hassan said there’s no reason to worry about becoming addicted, as long as they’re working closely with their physicians. Addiction is very different to being physically dependent, he said, and people can use pain medicine for long stretches of time without developing any addictive traits. But, he added, patients should make sure they distinguish between the pain that’s being treated and the emotion that can go along with it. “There is a very clear relationship between the mood and the pain,” he said, “because there is a classical conditioning, there is an association between the two.”
“Both of them can get worse together,” he said. “So patients may find themselves having a tendency to use the painkillers when they get depressed, and that can be a very tricky situation.”
Hassan said state and federal government should do a better job tracking the number of prescriptions and refills going out to ensure pain drugs are not being abused. The Obama administration has required states to implement drug monitoring programs as part of its national drug control strategy. Nebraska lawmakers approved a prescription monitoring program during the legislative session last year, and the state says it has been up and running for about a year.