Prescription Problems

​It can happen to anyone—and there’s help for kicking drug addiction

Prescription drugs can get abused very easily

The most rapidly growing drug addiction problem in the United States is the misuse of prescription painkillers, says Dr. Timothy O’Connell of Addiction Medicine Specialists Inc. in Newport News.  Here’s what you should know: Drug addicts don’t stand out in a crowd. Doctors should be more knowledgeable in prescribing medications. People should safeguard their medications at home. Most important: Treatment is available.

About half of those who become addicted started out with a prescription, perhaps for pain after a shoulder, back or knee surgery, O’Connell says. While many people can take prescription pain pills and then walk away from those pills when the prescription runs out, other people are wired differently, he says.

“For these patients, the medication sets off a biochemical response in the brain,” O’Connell says. “It leads to a set of cravings and to further abuse. These patients actually lose their ability to make competent decisions. An active part of their life becomes obtaining the medication on a daily basis.

It creates problems in their family, in their employment, in society. Everything suffers.” There’s no test to determine who is more likely to become addicted, O’Connell says. But many patients who do become addicted have a family history of substance abuse and/or depression, he says.

O’Connell asks patients how they felt the first time they took a pain pill. An average patient might feel a little lightheaded, he says. Meantime, a person prone to addiction would report an exaggerated response that might include more energy and euphoria, he says.

Physicians will have to become more educated about the best prescribing practices, O’Connell says. “The Board of Medicine is working on tools to educate physicians to alter their prescribing practices,” he says. Patients also can become more educated, he says. “People need to talk with their physicians about what’s being prescribed and —ask why they’re being given a script for 100 Vicodin tablets,” he says.

The second half of patients addicted to prescription painkillers are users who have taken drugs from family and friends or bought them from strangers, O’Connell says. “A majority of these pills are actually taken from the home ... perhaps from grandmothers with pain pills stored in medicine cabinets,” he says. “I have treated people who have cleaned people’s homes and go into the medicine cabinets (to get drugs). A lot of drugs that get prescribed get diverted into the community. There’s a black market.”

People who have prescription medications need to safeguard those drugs so they’re not readily available to other people, O’Connell advises.

While it’ is tempting to judge drug abusers, that’s the wrong approach. “A lot of people look at drug addicts as a certain subgroup of people in society,” O’Connell says. “It’s not who you would think. It’s the person who lives next door to you. I'’ve treated doctors, lawyers, nurses, construction workers, housewives, farmers, air conditioning specialists. There are no racial barriers, no financial barriers. Anybody is prone.”

The good news is, treatment is available. Addiction can be treated through counseling and/or other medications to ease the patient’s withdrawal from the problem drug, O’Connell says.

Often, patients need counseling for depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and other issues that may have led to a drug addiction, he says. The first obstacle to treatment is often lack of awareness, O’Connell says.

Patients are not aware of treatments available so they don’t seek help,” he says. Treatment can include out-patient therapy, residential therapy and intensive out-patient programs that allow people to work and still attend several three-hour sessions a week for four to six weeks, he says.

Denial and shame are other obstacles. “A lot of people don’t think they have a problem,” he says. “These people also feel a lot of shame and guilt. We need to take a more sympathetic approach to these patients. They truly have a medical condition.”

Unfortunately, finances often are another obstacle. Some available treatments, especially in-patient, are expensive and not covered by insurance, O’Connell says.

Although family and friends should try to avoid judging an addict, they should look for resources of their own. Look for online help and support groups for families of addicts, O’Connell says. (These include Al-Anon and Narcotics Anonymous.)

Remember that an addicted loved one’s first desire is to get more of the drug. “Families need to protect their assets and work on not enabling their loved ones,” he says. “If things are disappearing from the house, take steps to make sure that behavior doesn’t occur. Once a person is addicted, he loses control. He’s going to persuade a lot of family members. He’s going to make promises he can’t keep.”

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