By Dr. Mercola
Deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses are “skyrocketing” among women, according to a new report from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that found such deaths have increased five-fold from 1999 to 2010.1
With more women now dying every day from drug overdoses than from motor vehicle crashes, public health agencies are being forced to take notice of this epidemic problem and many are asking the million-dollar question of why so many women (and men) are falling victim to these drugs.
The CDC suggested several contributing issues, such as the fact that women are more likely to have chronic pain, be prescribed prescription painkillers at higher doses and use them for longer periods than men… and women are more likely to become dependent on these drugs faster.
But the real issue lies with the drugs themselves… not only their heavily addictive nature, which turns deadly for many who take them, but also the vast overreliance on them as a first line of defense for pain, when other, safer, options exist.
More Women Are Dying From Painkiller Overdoses Than Cocaine and Heroin Combined
Men are still more likely to die from prescription painkiller overdose, but women are quickly catching up. Nearly 50,000 such deaths occurred among women between 1999 and 2010, and the statistics revealed by the CDC give a somber view of this growing problem:2
- More than 6,600 women, or 18 women every day, died from a prescription painkiller overdose in 2010
- There were four times more deaths among women from prescription painkiller overdose than for cocaine and heroin deaths combined in 2010.
- In 2010, there were more than 200,000 emergency department visits for opioid misuse or abuse among women -- about one every three minutes.
The problem, once primarily seen in inner cities, is now spanning to rural areas, hitting people of all ethnic backgrounds and income levels. For women, a rise in single-parent households may be partly to blame. As the New York Times recently reported:3
“The rise of the single-parent household has thrust immense responsibility on women, who are not only mothers, but also, in many cases, primary breadwinners.
Some who described feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities said they craved the numbness that drugs bring. Others said highs made them feel pretty, strong and productive, a welcome respite from the chaos of their lives.”
How Prescription Painkillers Kill
Many people find themselves addicted to painkillers before they even realize what’s happened, often after taking the drugs to recover from surgery or treat chronic back, or other, pain. The drugs work by binding to receptors in your brain to decrease the perception of pain. But they also create a temporary feeling of euphoria, followed by dysphoria, that can easily lead to physical dependence and addiction.
This may drive some people to take larger doses in order to regain the euphoric effect, or escape the unhappiness caused by withdrawal. Others find they need to continue taking the drugs not only to reduce withdrawal symptoms but to simply feel normal. Large doses of the painkillers can cause sedation and slowed breathing to the point that breathing stops altogether, resulting in death.4 However, not all deaths are the result of abuse, per se. According to the New York Times:5
“While younger women in their 20s and 30s tend to have the highest rates of opioid abuse, the overdose death rate was highest among women ages 45 to 54… The range indicates that at least some portion of the drugs may have been prescribed appropriately for pain, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said in an interview. If death rates were driven purely by abuse, then one would expect the death rates to be highest among younger women who are the biggest abusers.”
Among the most commonly abused medications are:
- Opioids, such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, codeine and Fentora, which are used for pain relief
- Benzodiazepines, such as Xanax, Valium and Ativan, which are used as sedatives to induce sleep, prevent seizures and relieve anxiety
- Amphetamine-like drugs, such as Ritalin, Concerta and Adderall, which are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
Out of this group, the opioid pain relievers are by far the biggest problem, causing nearly three out of four prescription drug overdoses.6
Drug Makers Now Devising Drugs to Treat Painkiller Dependency
Rather than focusing on the root of the problem, which in many cases is addressing the pain that’s spurring painkiller use in the first place, drug makers are eager to promote their painkillers, which make up a nearly $9.4-billion market in the US alone.7
Their solutions involve even more drugs, such as Orexo AB, which is intended to block opiate receptors and help lessen dependence. Other studies are in the works to design painkillers that enter the brain slowly in order to reduce the euphoria that can lead to addiction. Still other “solutions” involve pills with harder shells to hinder crushing, or which congeal when crushed so they can’t be injected or snorted. Even adding unpleasant substances, such as soap or the hot-pepper ingredient capsaicin, has been discussed as a way to discourage overdoses.8
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been at the forefront, encouraging treatments that are less addictive… but again missing the irony that treating a drug problem with more drugs is in no way a long-term solution to this devastating problem. As Bloomberg reported, the FDA stated:9
“‘We are not wedded to any one way or the other’ to stop the abuse, Douglas Throckmorton, deputy director for regulatory programs at the FDA, said in a telephone interview. ‘What we want is abuse-deterrent formulations that work. We know how important this is.’”
Painkillers Often Lead to Experimentation with Illegal Drugs
The war against drugs has long focused on illegal street drugs like cocaine and heroin, but it’s clear that there should now be a new primary target. For a long time, marijuana, cigarettes and alcohol were the first drugs of choice by those who later may move into more hard-core drugs, hence the term "gateway drug." But things have changed a lot in recent years. Prescription drugs—especially prescription painkillers like OxyContin—are now leading the pack as the most common "gateway" to illegal drug use, and the consequences are far deadlier.
According to a 2012 press release:10
"... Since 2000, the drugs sending people to their graves or to rehab have been shifting away from illicit drugs and toward prescription drugs. A 2011 report on the subject from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made it clear: prescription narcotic pain reliever overdose deaths now exceed the number of deaths from heroin and cocaine combined.
For decades now, it has been usual that many young people looking for a drug to experiment with for the first time would choose marijuana... The Narconon Arrowhead drug rehabilitation program has recently uncovered a new pattern since prescription opiates have increasingly become the first drug used by many young people. This pattern is backed up by government surveyed results. According to Michael Botticelli, Director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse, prescription drugs now equal marijuana as entry-level drugs.
... 'Our own clients and people calling in daily for information about our program or help have told us story after story about addictions starting with the use of prescription drugs,' stated Derry Hallmark, Director of Admissions at Narconon Arrowhead, a premier drug rehab facility in Southeastern Oklahoma. 'Sadly, prescription medications have become the newest of the gateway drugs. Sadder still are the losses of life and other severe consequences that go hand in hand with drug abuse, which is especially the case with prescription drug abuse.'
Hallmark adds that those addicted to prescriptions will often end up needing treatment or will even start taking illicit drugs. One of the most common examples of this is the connection between those addicted to painkillers that then start taking heroin..."
These 11 Non-Drug Solutions May Help Heal Your Pain
Many of those succumbing to prescription drug overdoses started taking the drugs not to get high, but to control pain – often back pain. The solution, then, is to avoid taking the drugs in the first place, an option many physicians neglect to offer to their pain patients. If you are suffering from pain, I suggest you work with a knowledgeable health care practitioner to determine what's really triggering your pain, and then address the underlying cause.
Remember, along with exposing you to potentially deadly risks, medications only provide symptomatic relief and in no way, shape or form address the underlying cause of your pain. Still, I realize that pain can be debilitating so you don't need to suffer unnecessarily while you get to the bottom of your pain issues. The following options provide excellent pain relief without any of the health hazards that prescription (and even over-the-counter) painkillers carry.
If you have chronic pain, try these first, before even thinking about prescription painkillers of any kind.
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), which is a drug-free approach for pain management of all kinds. EFT borrows from the principles of acupuncture, in that it helps you balance out your subtle energy system.
It helps resolve underlying, often subconscious, negative emotions that may be exacerbating your physical pain. By stimulating (tapping) well-established acupuncture points with your fingertips, you rebalance your energy system, which tends to dissipate pain.
- Astaxanthin: One of the most effective fat-soluble antioxidants known. It has very potent anti-inflammatory properties and in many cases works far more effectively than anti-inflammatory drugs. Higher doses are typically required and one may need 8 mg or more per day to achieve this benefit.
- Ginger: This herb has potent anti-inflammatory activity and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea or grated into vegetable juice.
- Curcumin: In a study of osteoarthritis patients, those who added 200 mg of curcumin a day to their treatment plan had reduced pain and increased mobility.11 A past study also found that a turmeric extract composed of curcuminoids blocked inflammatory pathways, effectively preventing the overproduction of a protein that triggers swelling and pain.12
- Boswellia: Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains specific active anti-inflammatory ingredients. This is one of my personal favorites as I have seen it work well with many rheumatoid arthritis patients.
- Krill Oil: The omega-3 fats EPA and DHA contained in krill oil have been found by many animal and clinical studies to have anti-inflammatory properties that may be beneficial for pain.
- Bromelain: This enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form but eating fresh pineapple, including some of the bromelain-rich stem, may also be helpful.
- Cetyl Myristoleate (CMO): This oil, found in fish and dairy butter, acts as a "joint lubricant" and an anti-inflammatory. I have used this for myself to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild annoying carpal tunnel syndrome that pops up when I type too much on non-ergonomic keyboards. I used a topical preparation for this.
- Evening Primrose, Black Currant and Borage Oils: These contain the essential fatty acid gamma linolenic acid (GLA), which is useful for treating arthritic pain.
- Cayenne Cream: Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting the body's supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmits pain signals to your brain.
- Methods such as yoga, acupuncture, meditation,13 hot and cold packs, and even holding hands14 can also result in astonishing pain relief without any drugs.