Addiction to powerful prescription painkillers is on the rise both nationally and in the region, according to substance abuse experts.
Federal statistics suggest there is a national epidemic of addiction to such potent medications as Oxycontin, an opiate prescribed by doctors to those suffering both physical or emotional pain. Nearly 2 million Americans are under the grip of such painkillers — more than the number of people hooked on cocaine and heroin, officials said.
“These are medications being prescribed for legitimate reasons — at least initially — and we’re seeing more and more people getting addicted who normally wouldn’t become addicted, because the medications are so strong,” said Susan Dalesandro, director of the Otsego County Mental Health Services department.
“Some people end up mixing them with other things, and they become a very lethal combination,” Dalesandro added. “We have been seeing accidental overdoses because of this, and we’re seeing more (fatal) overdoses than suicides over the past couple of years.”
In the first six months of 2012, Otsego County recorded nine such fatal overdoes, versus a total of six suicides in that same period. In 2011, there were a total of 11 deaths as a result of drug and/or alcohol toxicity, versus a total of five deaths that were deemed to be self-inflicted, she said.
Dalesandro said the medical community has been attempting to combat the prescription drug scourge by keeping better track of the prescriptions that are issued, to prevent addicts from doctor shopping and loading up on more drugs than they should be able to access.
Prescription drug abuse is the fastest-growing drug problem in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The rise in unintentional drug overdose death rates nationwide has been driven by increased use of opioid analgesics, a class of powerful prescription drugs that has been implicated in more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined, according to the CDC
The federal agency reports that the rates of opioid analgesic misuse and overdose death are highest among men, persons aged 20 to 64, non-Hispanic whites, and poor and rural populations. The trend comes at the same time that practitioners, in an attempt to treat patient pain better, have greatly increased their rate of prescribing opioids, according to the CDC.
Jeannette Tolson, executive director of Friends of Recovery of Delaware and Otsego, said while her organization does not survey those seeking help with substance abuse issues on the type of addiction they have, it is clear that more people are reaching out for services because they have become ensnared in the prescription drug epidemic.
One approach, she said, is to help them deal with the root cause of their pain by referring them to such specialists as chiropractors and acupuncturists. In some cases, she said,”They will find they don’t need their painkillers. This is a health care problem, and we need to be supportive of people who are trying to get better.”
The CDC said prescription painkillers work by binding receptors in the brain to decrease the perception of pain. The drugs create a feeling of euphoria, and in some people they lead to addiction. They also result in sedation and slow down a person’s breathing. When larger doses are taken, breathing can slow down so much that it stops, resulting in death.
Julia Dostal, executive director for LEAF Council on Alcoholism/Addictions in Oneonta, said some people become dependent on painkillers because the prescribed drugs have the aura that they less risky than outlawed substances.
“When people perceive them as less risky, they are more likely to abuse them,” Dostal said. “They see it as medicine, so therefore, to them, it doesn’t have the risk and they think they can use them above and beyond what’s written on the prescription.”
The CDC said that almost all prescription drugs involved in overdoses come from prescriptions originally, and few come from pharmacy theft. However, once they are prescribed and dispensed, prescription drugs are frequently diverted to people using them without prescriptions. The federal agency reported that more than three out of four people who misuse prescription painkillers use drugs prescribed to someone else.
New York and many other states have prescription drug monitoring programs, consisting of electronic databases that track the prescribing and dispensing of controlled prescription drugs to patients. The programs are designed to thwart suspected abuse or diversion and provide doctors and pharmacists with real-time information on a patients’ prescription drug history, helping to avoid so-called doctor shopping.
Local officials said that some people whose painkiller addictions become unmanageable resort to buying heroin on the streets if they can’t access the prescription drugs.
Otsego County Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. said patients who acquire prescription drugs should store them in a secure and safe place to minimize the chance they will be stolen.
If the prescribed drugs are stolen, he said, pharmacies will no longer refill the prescription unless a police report is filed.
When a person dies from an accidental overdose, he said, not only the police but the county coroner’s office also becomes involved.
“Unattended deaths are investigated by the coroner, and an autopsy is done,” the sheriff said.