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How safe are painkillers?

Pain relief medication has a good purpose: When taken under a physician’s care, it can help patients who are suffering from acute and chronic pain. For example, someone who has just undergone surgery, broken a bone, or had an abscessed tooth may be a candidate for aggressive, but short-term pain medication. Pain medication also provides much-needed relief for those living with chronic pain caused by an illness or permanent nerve damage.

“There is a small group of patients who have lifelong conditions that are very painful. These patients live in pain that can be agonizing and unruly,” says Rodrigo Duralde, M.D., an anesthesiologist and pain specialist at Piedmont. “Pain medication helps improve quality of life for these individuals who otherwise have no cure options.”

Why painkiller addiction is so dangerous

Dr. Duralde says that while pain medication can help someone through an injury or surgery, it is not designed as a long-term pain management solution for the average person because it can be addictive.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared pain medication addiction an epidemic. The scary statistics:

  • Each year, nearly 15,000 people die of prescription painkiller overdoses.

  • In a 2010 survey, one in 20 people aged 12 or older said they used prescription pain medication for nonmedical purposes.

  • More painkillers are being prescribed than ever: In 2010, so much pain medication was prescribed, it could have medicated every American adult for an entire month.

Signs of pain medication addiction

Dr. Duralde believes roughly 10 percent of patients may be seeking pain medication for the wrong reasons, but it can be difficult to differentiate them. However, he says there are some telltale signs of addiction, including when a patient:

  • Focuses on his or her pain medication supply

  • Shows signs of declining health

  • Has trouble in relationships

  • Makes more frequent mistakes at work

  • Has a hard time following simple rules

“In general, pain was under-treated in the 90s,” explains Dr. Duralde. “In recent years, we have been over-treating it, so now there is a large supply [of pain medication] in circulation. The pendulum has swung too far, and this has created an addiction epidemic. Thankfully, we are now seeing a gradual shift back to a more conservative approach.”

Individuals with a personal or family history of addiction are at higher risk for pain medication addiction. Doctors have tools and resources to help screen and monitor for pain medication abuse.

Anyone taking pain medication should be closely monitored by a physician. There are physical and psychological side effects that can develop during treatment, and it is important for patients to discuss any physical or emotional changes with their physician. A pain specialist can also help determine a pain medication regimen that provides a proper balance for each patient’s needs.

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