By William Cornish, MD, Samaritan Coastal Clinic
Abuse of opioid medications — narcotic painkillers such as oxycodone or hydrocodone — has increased so much in the last decade that the problem is now considered a national epidemic. The number of deaths from drug overdoses — mainly prescription painkillers and heroin — is comparable to the death rate of those with HIV at the peak of the AIDS epidemic in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
Opioid abuse reaches across all social classes, races and geographical boundaries, affecting every state, county and town. Though there is a black market for painkillers, often problems with opioid pain medications begin with a prescription. Sometimes a spouse who had knee surgery or a teen injured in a football game becomes hooked on the medicine that was originally meant to help them. And when they start having trouble getting their hands on more pills, they might find that heroin can be relatively easy to obtain. Whether they stick to painkillers or move onto heroin, the threat of overdose looms.
How can you know if a loved one is abusing painkillers or becoming addicted? If you notice they want to take the medications more often, it may mean that they are in a lot of pain, but if they want to take more and more and it doesn’t make sense to you, that is a red flag. Addiction is a psychological phenomenon — a craving. They may seem tired or groggy a lot of the time. Their behavior might change. They may become less social or change their social group. They may miss work or school. You might find they are seeking more painkillers than the doctor prescribed and are trying to get pills from friends or family members.
If the problem is not addressed, the threat of overdose is very real. Symptoms of overdose can lead to a loss of alertness, slurred speech, falling down and recurrent injuries, unconsciousness, decreased breathing and death. If you believe your loved one has overdosed, call 911.
If you suspect your family member or friend has a problem with painkillers, bring it up in a non-confrontational way. You can say something like, “Hey, I know you recently had surgery and you’re taking pain medication. I am wondering if you might be taking too much. I’ve noticed you seem very tired and have been slurring your words.”
Though patient privacy laws prevent doctors from talking to you about the details of someone else’s health care, this does not mean you cannot contact the doctor who prescribed the painkillers and say you are noticing a problem. It is also good to contact the primary care provider, as they have the most information about the patient’s history — including any past prescriptions for painkillers.
If your loved one has become dependent on opioid medications, know that very few people are able to quit abusing painkillers on their own. When withdrawing from an addiction, patients may experience agitation or flu-like symptoms. These are not in themselves fatal. Patients generally need the help of a physician and many need to enroll in an inpatient program.