A report in the AARP Bulletin in September says that “46 Americans overdose on painkillers each day — and the numbers are rising for those over 55.”
For a long time, according to the AARP findings, there have been stories of a growing epidemic of addiction and overdose related to opioid prescription pain meds, most commonly morphine, oxycodone and hydrocodone.
According to data from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, “Between 1993 and 2012, the rate of hospitalizations for prescription pain-pill overdoses increased fivefold among people 45 to 85 — much faster than for younger adults.” That’s more than four times the rate for teenagers and young adults.
There are several major reasons older Americans are at a higher risk:
- They’re more likely to suffer chronic pain and to be prescribed an opioid drug for it.
- The body’s ability to clear drugs from the system declines with age, so a safe dose for younger people can be an overdose for older patients.
- The danger is compounded when people are taking several different other drugs that have to be cleared through the liver or kidneys — such as medications for heart disease or diabetes.
- Opioid pain medications can also prove deadly for older patients who have trouble keeping track of their pills. Psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Kolodny, a leading expert on opioid addiction, is quoted in the AARP article, “If someone on an 80-milligram dose of oxycodone forgets they took it and takes another, there’s a good chance of a fatal overdose.”
Prior to the late 1990s, because of the risk of addiction and overdose, opioids were traditionally rarely prescribed.
Since then, campaigns backed by the American Pain Society, the American Academy of Pain Medicine, and other professional groups had the laudable goal of encouraging doctors to be more aggressive in relieving chronic pain, which afflicts an estimated 100 million Americans.
“But the push for wider use of painkillers was largely financed by drug makers with a vested interest in making money,” Kolodny says, “and they vastly understated the risks of addiction and greatly overstated the effectiveness of these drugs. Physicians were given the impression that the drugs are far safer and more effective for chronic pain than they actually are.”
The campaigns worked. Over the next 15 years, the rate of opioid pain reliever use more than doubled in the U.S. Consumption of oxycodone increased nearly fivefold. By 2012, 8 percent of adults 40 and over reported taking an opioid painkiller in the past 30 days.
The fact is, researchers still know little about the actual risks and benefits of taking these powerful drugs long-term.
Federal officials have launched their own programs designed to halt the overuse of opioids. The FDA has issued separate guidelines on the safe use of opioid painkillers.
“Based on everything we know, daily use of strong opioid pain medications is a lousy option for most patients with chronic pain,” Kolodny says. “These are drugs that become less effective at controlling pain over time, and ultimately may even make people more sensitive to pain. And once people have been taking them daily for a few weeks, it can become very, very difficult to stop.”
At many major pain clinics around the country, in fact, including the Mayo Clinic, one of the first goals is often to get chronic pain sufferers off opioid medications.
The AARP article concludes, if you’re currently taking an opioid pain medication, here’s what you need to know to use it safely and effectively:
- Start low and go slow
- Tell your doc about other meds you take
- One of the biggest risk factors for overdose and death from opiates is mixing them with alcohol or other medications.
- Follow up frequently
- To monitor how you’re doing, your doctor may need to see you frequently, in some cases monthly. Your doctor may also order a urine test to measure opiate levels in your system.
- Be realistic
- Don’t expect any pain medication to be a magic bullet. Most only ease pain, and all of them have risks. “Often we can’t eliminate the pain,” says James W. Atchison of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Center for Pain Management.
- Keep medications safe
While most doctors are responsible, there have been many other instances of doctors over-prescribing these drugs (and others) without careful consideration to how they may affect the patient.
If you suspect that a doctor or other prescriber has been irresponsible in prescribing any drug that has harmed you, a family member, or a friend, contact Theodoros & Rooth. With more than 110 years of collective experience in areas such as medical malpractice and product liability, we will listen to you carefully. The initial consultation is free. If we believe you have a case, Theodoros & Rooth will standby you and fight for you. There is no fee until we successfully resolve your case.
Source: AARP Bulletin – September 2015