Prescription Drug Abuse: How I Got Addicted to Painkillers
A Culture of Pill Poppers
Over the past 15 years, prescriptions for pain medications have risen dramatically in the United States. Sales for five of the biggest labels, including OxyContin and Vicodin, increased approximately 90 percent at pharmacies across the country between 1997 and 2005, according to the DEA. OxyContin use alone went up a whopping 600 percent. The increase, some researchers believe, is due in part to new versions of the drugs. Where previous painkillers zonked people out entirely, the latest formulas, especially time-release pills, are helping millions of pain sufferers continue to live active lives. And pharmaceutical companies are aggressively marketing these drugs to widespread audiences. Moreover, Americans are undergoing a shift in their attitudes toward pain itself. In the past a strained hamstring during Spin class or an achy shoulder after tennis was a sign to take it easy; now it's often a mere inconvenience that can be masked with the right medicine. Whether you're a weekend exerciser or more serious athlete, our society breeds an attitude of "do what you need to do in order to win," says Al Green, a member of the National Athletic Trainers Association. "Injuries are no longer an excuse not to work out. Players are prescribed painkillers without question."
That presents a quandary. If the drugs successfully ease a person's pain, why is it so bad to use them? "One way to ensure long-term negative health issues is to not let your body recuperate from injuries," says Vic Naumov, founder and executive director of the National Coalition for the Advancement of Drug-Free Athletics. "You have to heal completely before getting back out there or you risk permanent damage or another injury."
Painkillers have another potential risk: According to the DEA, more women now die of overdoses from prescription opioid pain meds than from heroin and cocaine combined. And emergency-room visits involving prescription painkillers increased 168 percent between 1994 and 2002. In 2006 an estimated 5.2 million Americans misused pain medications, despite the highly public legal case in which the makers of OxyContin pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the drug's risk of addiction and abuse. "In the U.S. there has been a worrisome increase in prescription-drug abuse," says Beth Israel Medical Center's Russell Portenoy, MD. The winner in all this pill popping? Drug companies. Their sales figures have skyrocketed, reflecting a near tripling of the money spent to market prescription drugs to the public -- to $30 billion in 2005.
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