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Dangers of Long-Term Use of Prescription Pain Medication

High-profile celebrity deaths, such as Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith and Health Ledger, have brought to light the dangers of prescription drug use. Prescription drug use has been prevalent for decades. However, it seems, injury and death from their use are getting worse-particularly for prescription pain medications.

Amid a recent article in a respected peer review magazine, some California doctors say it's time to wake up and take notice. They are urging their fellow doctors to reconsider prescribing narcotics to certain patients with chronic pain.

Dangers of Prescription Drugs

Prescription drugs that relieve pain, insomnia or chronic cough have helped millions of patients lead better lives. However, with benefits, come plenty of dangers. Many types of prescription drugs are classified as highly addictive. Patients become dependent on them and end up needing more to fulfill their use. As a result, many lives have been ruined, and cut short, due to the abuse of these drugs. Approximately 12,000 people die every year as a result of using medications such as Oxycodone, Oxycotin, Vocodin, Percocet and Darvocet.

Currently, powerful legal pain narcotics such as Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin rank as the most prescribed drugs in the nation. Called opioids, these drugs act by attaching to opioid receptors found in the brain, spinal cord and gastrointestinal tract and block the perception of pain. Approximately 15 percent of patients who visit with doctors today walk out with a prescription classified as an opioid.

Other commonly known prescription narcotics include Morphine and Codeine.

Prescription Pain Meds and Short-Term Use

Many of these deaths could be preventable. According to a publication from the Archives of Internal Medicine-a peer review medical journal published by the American Medical Association-there is no scientific evidence that shows any benefit to long-term use of such drugs. Alternately, authors of the publication indicate that the thousands of deaths that occur each year are a strong indication that they are actually harmful.

Dr. Mitchell H. Katz, co-author of the publication, says that prescriptions for short-term relief are acceptable, but unless there's more positive support for their use in the long haul, doctors should refrain from prescribing these meds. He says doctors "should not continue to prescribe high-dose opioids" for chronic non-cancer pain.

The National Institute of Drug Abuse seemingly agrees that only short-term usage is acceptable. Their website says, "Many studies have shown that properly managed, short-term medical use of opioid analgesic drugs is safe..."

The public and congressional authorities appears focused on banning or passing more restrictive laws for street drugs like cocaine or heroin. However, according to Katz, these drugs aren't the real problem. "The use of prescription opioids currently results in more deaths in the United States due to overdose than heroin and cocaine combined," he says.

Pain specialists at the American Pain Society also seem to agree with Dr. Katz that opioids do cause problems. However, according to Dr. Robert Chou, who heads the Society, prescribing low doses of opioids to low-risk patients are not necessarily problematic. For example, he believes that a woman in her 70s who suffers from severe hip arthritis should not be denied opioids if they allow her to garden or walk with decreased pain.

Dr. Katz says that there are alternative options available to patients who suffer from extreme pain, such as physical therapy and yoga, and doctors should be discussing non narcotic alternatives with their patients. Unfortunately, he concludes, some physicians may receive pushback when speaking with their patients about discontinuing narcotic drug use and will have to end up giving their patients the "sobering message."

Some doctors, unfortunately, are reluctant to discontinue prescribing narcotics to patients with chronic pain and could be setting themselves up for liability. Some Stamford medical malpractice lawyers say that, under the law, doctors who overprescribe pain meds in an unreasonable fashion that results in injury or death to patients can be liable for medical malpractice.

History of Opioid Use

The use of powerful pain killing drugs isn't new to America or the world. Opioids have been used for a variety of reasons for almost 6,000 years. However, within the last couple of centuries, the dangers of opioid use have slowly come to light. In 1890, the very first Congressional law was passed that regulated morphine and opium. From that day forward, more and more regulations have continued to be passed and implemented to curb opioid use, abuse and control.

Amid continuous public awareness about the dangers of opioid use, it remains to be seen whether Congressional authorities will consider passing new, more strict regulations-particularly those that involve physicians.