Prescription painkillers are becoming much more prevalent in the United States and there are serious risks associated with these drugs that many are not aware of. The use of prescription opioids has increased dramatically in the past decade as prescriptions for OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin and other pain medications have climbed 300 percent. Painkillers containing the narcotic hydrocodone are now the most commonly prescribed drug in the U.S.
In the United States, 46 people a day, or approximately 17,000 people every year, die from overdosing on prescription opioids. For every death, there are 30 people that are taken to the emergency room as a result of opioid overdose. Some would attribute this epidemic to misinformation, but some believe doctors are overprescribing these drugs and are not monitoring the potential side effects. While there are many cases of complications with prescription opioids, many of these issues arise from inadvertent misuse, such as patients combining them with alcohol, taking too high a dose, taking them for too long, or using them in situations where fast reaction times are required or when they need to be alert.
An article by Consumer Reports outlines three main misconceptions about opioid use that contribute to the problems with prescription painkillers. First, while opioids can help ease short-term pain, there is little evidence that prescription painkillers are any help or are safe for long-term use. An estimated 90 percent of people suffering from chronic pain are prescribed an opioid, but the higher the dose, which can be increased as someone develops a tolerance, and the longer they are taken, the greater the risks. Once one takes an opioid for a few weeks, he or she may develop a tolerance, which may turn into a dependence.
Second, doctors may be unaware that opioids can be addictive when used to treat pain. It is estimated that somewhere between five and 25 percent of people who use prescription painkillers for long-term pain will become addicted.
Third, there is no evidence that proves that extended-release opioids, such as the newly FDA-approved Zohydro ER, are better or safer than short-acting painkillers. Doctors prescribe them for convenience, as fewer pills need to be taken. But with a higher potency, people who are dependent on opioids may seek extended-release versions. Attorneys General from 28 states have asked to FDA to reconsider putting Zohydro ER on the market because it has shown no clear advantages over other opioids and because its potency may make misuse more likely. More than a dozen members of Congress have signed a bill that would ban Zohydro ER.
Prescription opioids are not the only painkillers whose use should be examined. Acetaminophen (Tylenol), Ibuprofen (Advil), naproxen (Aleve), and other painkillers also pose serious risks if not used correctly. Some complications are from abuse of these drugs, but many arise accidentally because advice and instructions can be confusing and conflicting and the instruction “take only as directed” is vague. Some labels say that no more 1,000 milligrams of acetaminophen should be taken daily, but others set the limit four times as high. Last year, Johnson & Johnson went so far as to start adding warning labels on Tylenol bottles. While these drugs can be very dangerous in the short-term when a high enough dose is taken, long-term use of lower doses can lead to brain, kidney and liver problems.
While some painkillers can lead to serious complications, this information does not mean that people should avoid opioids or acetaminophen. You should consult your medical provider before making any changes in your medications. If you or a loved one has suffered an injury as a result of misleading drug information or incorrectly prescribed medication, you should contact a Lopez McHugh attorney for a free consultation.