Why are so many people dying of accidental drug overdoses? The truth behind prescription drug misuse and how to avoid disaster.
Prince’s death has highlighted a problem in America: the risk of drug overdoses. You’ve likely heard many celebrity names during the years — from Elvis and Judy Garland to Heath Ledger and Amy Winehouse.
In fact, you might think of drug abuse as either a celebrity problem or a problem for lower-income people. Instead, death from drug overdoses has increased at an astonishing rate among all socioeconomic levels and ethnic groups in the past few decades. According to the New York Times, “the number of these deaths reached a new peak in 2014: 47,055 people, or the equivalent of about 125 Americans every day.”
Many of these overdoses are from opioids, a class of drugs that includes heroin and fentanyl, the medication that led to Prince’s drug overdose. Other examples of opioids are: morphine, methadone, Buprenorphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. You might recognize them by their brand names including OxyContin®, Percocet®, Vicodin®, Percodan®, Tylox® and Demerol® among others. The Times reports that opioids were involved in more than 61 percent of deaths from overdoses in 2014.
Often, these drugs are obtained legally. Many people are prescribed opioids for chronic pain. According to an analysis published in the JAMA Internal Medicine, the majority of opioid prescriptions are written by family physicians and general internists.
This year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidelines about when to prescribe such medications. Right now in the physical therapy community, a hashtag #ChoosePT is working to create awareness about other ways to treat chronic and acute pain without turning to drugs.
“As doctors, our goal is to promote healing and recovery for our patients,” said Dr. Melanie Mintzer of Generations Family Practice. “While this means treating pain, we do not want to cause addiction to narcotics as a side effect, which can create an unnecessary chronic disease for some patients. It is a delicate balance and we are committed to identifying the causes of pain and treating them with multi-modality interventions to prevent addiction or accidental drug overdose.”
As we, the medical community, work to do better, we must also do more to educate those who might misuse these drugs. Those who choose to misuse prescription drugs for recreation may be obtaining them from someone else and may not have been informed of their dangers. There is a stigma associated with drug use that leads many people not to discuss it or try to get more information about it.
Avoiding disaster means attacking the problem on multiple fronts, including:
- Teaching everyone never to mix opioids with other sedatives.
- Making it easy to access naloxone, an inexpensive drug that reverses the effects of opiate overdoses.
- Carefully considering whether stricter drug punishments are truly the solution.
As your doctors, we hope that you’ll come to us with any questions or concerns about prescription drug use for yourself or family members.