Prescription medications are powerful therapies, able to cure, heal, and prevent disease. Antibiotics, for example, are well known to treat bacterial diseases such as strep throat and ear infections, and statins have greatly reduced the risk of heart disease for millions of people.
These kinds of drugs are some of modern medicine's greatest advancements, and they are widely prescribed and used: nearly half (48.5 percent) of the population uses at least one prescription medication, and more than one-fifth (22 percent) uses three or more according to the CDC.
Prescription pain medicines such as opioids and narcotics are also extensively used. In 2012, for example, health care providers wrote an astonishing 259 million prescriptions for these medications, enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills.
Pain is a widespread medical condition. In its report, "Relieving Pain in America", the Institute of Medicine notes that more than 100 million adults have chronic pain - more than diabetes, heart disease, and cancer combined.
Whether it is chronic pain (constant, lasting a long time), acute (severe, lasting a short time), or terminal (such as that associated with cancer), the Institute notes that pain is "one of the most frequent reasons for physician visits, among the most common reasons for taking medications, and a major cause of work disability."
While we have medicines that treat pain effectively, the sad fact is that too often these medications are abused, and most often by diversion: more than three out of four people who misuse prescription pain medication use drugs that are prescribed to someone else, according to the CDC.
Even as Massachusetts ranks as one of the top four states in curbing prescription drug abuse by the Trust for America's Health, we have lost hundreds of lives to overdoses in the Commonwealth. Even one is too many.
Death from drug overdose is now the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S. The CDC's most recent figures show that most - 60 percent - of the more than 38,000 annual drug overdose deaths in the U.S. are related to pharmaceuticals. And of those, 75 percent involved prescription pain medicines.
Treating pain is a complex endeavor that must be tailored to each individual patient. One of the most difficult tasks for physicians in patient care is balancing the alleviation of pain and the risks of addiction. Yet patients who experience severe pain will always require treatment and should be able to get relief.
Most people take medications responsibly, but more than 12 million Americans report using prescription pain medications for nonmedical reasons, many of them young people.
While government and public health officials take steps to fight prescription abuse through a variety of programs, physicians and patients can also work together to achieve safe and effective pain management. Here's how.
- Physicians are careful when prescribing these medicines, but if your doctor prescribes a pain medicine, ask if you really need it. Might there be a different, non-prescription treatment that could work to ease the pain?
- If you and your doctor decide that the prescription is the best course, discuss it at length with your doctor. You should leave the doctor's office with a clear understanding of what the medicine is supposed to do, when and how you should take it, how long you should take it, potential side effects, and what the risks and benefits are of taking it.
- When you take prescription pain medicines, use them only as directed. Follow all instructions carefully.
- Keep all medications in a secure place, where others can't get them. This can help prevent the diversion of drugs to people who use them without a doctor's prescription.
- Don't mix drugs without talking to your doctor and don't drink alcohol when using the medicine.
- Don't share prescription drugs or use another person's medication.
- Dispose of unused drugs properly and promptly, at your local police department or through "drug take-back" programs.
Taking these steps can help to reduce the abuse of prescription pain medicines. For more information on the non-narcotic treatment of chronic pain, contact the Franklin Pain and Wellness Center.