Our growing addiction to prescription painkillers

From ABC Health and Wellbeing, 11 November 2014:

When talking about the problems of illicit drug use in Australia, conversations will tend to focus on ice, heroin, ecstasy and similar drugs.

But one class of drugs rarely gets a mention, despite the fact that it’s now overtaking heroin as the cause of calls to drug treatment services. Perhaps that’s because there’s a good chance you’ve tried it, and a very good chance that your doctor prescribed it to you.

Prescription pain-relieving opioids, such as morphine and oxycodone, are fast becoming the top drugs of misuse in Australia. For example, one Victorian alcohol and drug counselling helpline now receives more than twice as many calls about prescription opioids as they do about heroin.

At the Sydney Medically Supervised Injecting Centre, more than three times as many visits each month are for the injection of crushed opioid tablets when compared to heroin.

Prescription opioids are not only an issue in Australia. In the United States, prescription opioids have earned the nickname ‘hillbilly heroin’, and their public health impact is now being likened to that of diabetes.

No typical user

There is no typical user, or typical scenario for prescription opioid misuse, although most people seeking help for prescription opioid addiction have been prescribed medication for pain relief, says Dr Matthew Frei, clinical director of Victoria’s Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre.

“There’s a spectrum of aberrance or dysfunction or problems associated with the medications,” says Frei.

“They range from gradual dose escalation to a dose that is causing some discomfort either for the patients, their doctor, and/or the regulators; to people who are really dysfunctional and might be attempting to get the medications from multiple doctors, they might be purchasing medications on grey or black markets, and even in severe cases, injecting, selling or trading the medication.”

Frei says most people seeking treatment for prescription opioid addiction were originally prescribed the medication – as opposed to those who have come by the medication through illicit means – which highlights a major part of the problem with opioids, and the reason why we now find ourselves in this epidemic of misuse. Read more.

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