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By Dr. Mercola
If you were around in the early 1900s, a time when tuberculosis and pneumonia were among the leading causes of death, your doctor might have prescribed a drug called heroin to treat your cough.
As explained in the intriguing podcast,1 linked above, heroin was first synthesized by chemist Charles Romley Alder Wright in 1874, but he abandoned it after running animal tests.
More than two decades later, Felix Hoffman, who worked with Bayer pharmaceutical company, again synthesized the drug, and the company’s head of the pharmacological laboratory, Heinrich Dreser, decided to move forward with it.
Dreser deemed heroin to be “an original Bayer product” (despite being aware of Wright’s earlier discovery) and, after testing it on animals and humans in 1898, presented the drug to the Congress of German Naturalists and Physicians.
Heroin, it was claimed, was a miracle drug “10 times more effective than codeine as a cough medicine,” worked better than morphine as a painkiller and had “almost no toxic effects,” including being non-addictive…
Heroin Was a Blockbuster Drug… Until Its Addictive Nature Quickly Became Known
Heroin, which acts as a sedative and respiratory depressant, worked well in suppressing coughing fits, making it a medical breakthrough at the time. Mixed into cough syrup and glycerin solution, taken as a tablet, or even as a heroin “salt,” the drug was marketed to physicians as being non-addictive. This may have been possible, in part, because of its form. According to TodayIFoundOut:2
“When heroin is orally ingested, its effects are drastically reduced due to the fact that it is converted to morphine when it is metabolized by your body.
This may partially explain why the addictive effects of heroin were not instantly apparent, as is often the case with modern methods junkies use to partake in this drug which result in it being able to cross the blood-brain barrier extremely quickly.”
In the early 1900s, heroin was popular in more than 23 countries, with Bayer producing one ton of the drug in its first year alone. However, by 1913 the number of heroin addicts had skyrocketed to the point that Bayer was forced to stop producing the drug.
You should know that prescription opiates are chemically similar to heroin, and virtually indistinguishable as far as your brain is concerned. (And heroin is actually still used medically, often for post-surgery pain, in certain countries, including the UK.3)
As explained by Dr. Wilson Compton, deputy director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, heroin, morphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone "are all classified as opioids because they exert their effect by attaching to the opioid receptor found in our brain and spinal cord."4
For instance, hydrocodone, a prescription opiate, is synthetic heroin. So, if you're hooked on hydrocodone, you are in fact a good-old-fashioned heroin addict. But most people assume that because it’s a “prescription” drug, it’s safe, or should not carry the same negative stigma as a street drug. This is, sadly, far from the truth.
Heroin Addiction Was Rampant in 1913; In 2014, It’s Prescription Painkiller Addiction
Fatal prescription drug overdoses actually surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in 2007. Many of the overdoses (36 percent) involve prescription opioid painkillers, which were actually the cause of more overdose deaths than heroin and cocaine combined.
To put this into perspective, in 2009, nearly 29,000 people died from unintentional drug overdoses, which is the equivalent of losing an airplane carrying 150 passengers and crew every day for nearly 6.5 months – a scenario that would simply be absolutely unacceptable in terms of public health risks.5
Pain is one of the most common health complaints in the US, but record numbers of Americans are, sadly, becoming drug addicts in an attempt to live pain-free. According to 2010 data, there were enough narcotic painkillers being prescribed in the US to medicate every single adult, around the clock, for a month.6
By 2012, a whopping 259 million prescriptions for opioids and other narcotic painkillers were written in the US, which equates to 82.5 prescriptions for every 100 Americans.7 And those narcotics are responsible for 46 deaths each and every day...
Americans use the most opioids of any nation—twice the amount used by Canadians, who come in second place in terms of prescriptions.8 The problem has become noticeable enough that even US officials now warn that narcotic painkillers are a driving force in the rise of substance abuse and lethal overdoses.
Preliminary research presented at the 2014 meeting of the American Academy of Pain Medicine in Phoenix, Arizona also found that 12.6 percent of all primary care visits made by Americans between 2002 and 2009 involved prescriptions for sedatives and/or narcotic painkillers (opioids).9 The study also found:
- The number of prescriptions for sedative drugs rose by 12.5 percent a year
- Patients receiving a narcotic painkiller were 4.2 times more likely to receive a second prescription for a sedative
- The number of joint prescriptions of opioids and sedatives also increased by 12 percent a year in that time frame
- Prescription sedatives and narcotic painkillers are responsible for at least 30 percent of narcotic painkiller-related deaths
- Besides deaths caused by overdose, other risks associated with sedative use include falls in the elderly, emergency room visits, and drug dependence
Just One Prescription May Leave You ‘Addicted for a Lifetime’
CDC Director Tom Frieden put the serious danger of using narcotic painkillers even one time into perspective: "Patients given just a single course may become addicted for life," he recently warned.10 Painkillers work by interacting with receptors in your brain resulting in a decrease in the perception of pain. They are inherently addictive, as they also create a temporary feeling of euphoria, followed by dysphoria, that can easily lead to physical dependence and addiction.
Ironically, the trademarked name “heroin” is thought to be derived from the German word “heroisch,” or heroic, which is how the Bayer workers who tested the drug on themselves said it made them feel.11 Still, why certain people become addicted (to heroin or prescription painkillers) while others get by unfazed has remained a mystery.
Researchers from the University of Derby set out to determine what might be influencing painkiller addiction and dependence by conducting an anonymous survey of people who had pain and had used painkillers in the last month. They found three predictors that they said identified those most at risk of developing painkiller dependence. It included those who:12
- Used prescription painkillers more frequently
- Have a prior history of substance abuse (often unrelated to pain relief)
- Are less accepting of pain or less able to cope with pain
According to the authors, pain, prior substance abuse, and psychological factors may all play a role in a person’s likelihood of addiction. One thing is for certain, you can certainly not gauge who is an addict by looks or occupation. In fact, painkiller addiction spans all ages and walks of life. The problem, once primarily seen in inner cities, is now spanning to rural areas, hitting people of all ethnic backgrounds and income levels, from business professionals to single mothers to retirees.
For instance, a significant number of older adults, particularly those in the baby boomer generation, are struggling with both illicit and prescription drug abuse. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported that the number of people in their 50s who are abusing illicit or prescription drugs more than doubled from 2002 to 2010, going from 2.7 to 5.8 percent in this population. Among those 65 and older, 414,000 used such drugs in 2010.13
At the other end of the spectrum, one in four teens has misused a prescription drug at least once in their lifetime, according to survey results from the partnership at Drugfree.org and the MetLife Foundation.14 Prescription drugs don’t hold the same stigma as illegal recreational drugs, even though they can be far more deadly, leading teens to regard the former as a “safe” way to get high. Prescription drugs have even been described by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy as the “drug of choice” second only to marijuana for today’s teens.15
Prescription Painkillers May Lead to Heroin Use
In many ways, we’ve come full circle from the early 1900s when heroin was used as cough medicine. Today, drugs that are just as potent are prescribed as a solution for pain, leading quickly to addiction for, perhaps, the majority of patients. From there, it may actually progress to heroin use. Over the past five years alone, heroin deaths have increased by 45 percent -- an increase that officials blame on the rise of addictive prescription drugs such as Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, codeine, and Fentora, all of which are opioids (derivatives of opium, like heroin).16
This connection finally received some media attention following the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, a 46-year-old Oscar-winning actor. He died from heroin overdose in early 2014.17 Last year, Hoffman entered rehab when addiction to prescription painkillers led him to switch to heroin. But please don’t be misled that it takes heroin use to cause a fatal overdose. All opioids depress your heart rate and breathing. Large doses can cause sedation and slowed breathing to the point that breathing stops altogether, resulting in death.
Are You in Severe Pain?
I strongly recommend exhausting your options before resorting to a narcotic pain reliever, and I'll list a number of alternatives at the end of this article. That being said, if you’re in severe pain, I agree that these drugs do have a place, and can be a great benefit when used cautiously and correctly with appropriate medical supervision.
However, it's also quite clear that these drugs are being overprescribed, and can easily lead you into addiction and other, more illicit, drug use. I strongly suspect that the overreliance on them as a first line of defense for pain is a major part of this problem. So if you are dealing with severe or chronic pain, my first suggestion would be to see a pain specialist who is familiar with alternative treatments and the underlying causes of pain.
Ideally, it is best to find a knowledgeable practitioner who can help you attack the pain from multiple angles, giving you both relief and healing. One option that is receiving increasing attention in the US is cannabis. It’s the cannabidiol (CBD) in cannabis that has medicinal properties. CBD is an excellent painkiller and has been used successfully to treat a variety of pain disorders. If your pain is severe enough, it might even be worth moving to one of the many states where medical cannabis is legal, as it can be a real life changer.
In states where medicinal marijuana is legal, such as California, you can join a collective, which is a legal entity consisting of a group of patients that can grow and share cannabis medicines with each other. By signing up as a member, you gain the right to grow and share your medicine. I do, however, still recommend working with a health care practitioner who can guide you on the most effective dosage and form of use (cannabis may be inhaled, smoked, vaporized, taken orally, or even applied topically (in oil form)).
19 Non-Drug Solutions for Pain Relief
I strongly recommend exhausting other options before you resort to an opioid pain reliever. The health risks associated with these drugs are great, and addiction is a very real concern. Below I list 19 non-drug alternatives for the treatment of pain. These options provide excellent pain relief without any of the health hazards that prescription (and even over-the-counter) painkillers carry. This list is in no way meant to represent the only approaches you can use.
They are, rather, some of the best strategies that I know of. I do understand there are times when pain is so severe that a prescription drug may be necessary. Even in those instances, the options that follow may be used in addition to such drugs, and may allow you to at least reduce your dosage. If you are in pain that is bearable, please try these first, before resorting to prescription painkillers of any kind.
- Eliminate or radically reduce most grains and sugars from your diet. Avoiding grains and sugars will lower your insulin and leptin levels and decrease insulin and leptin resistance, which is one of the most important reasons why inflammatory prostaglandins are produced. That is why stopping sugar and sweets is so important to controlling your pain and other types of chronic illnesses.
- Take a high-quality, animal-based omega-3 fat. My personal favorite is krill oil. Omega-3 fats are precursors to mediators of inflammation called prostaglandins. (In fact, that is how anti-inflammatory painkillers work, they manipulate prostaglandins.)
- Optimize your production of vitamin D by getting regular, appropriate sun exposure, which will work through a variety of different mechanisms to reduce your pain.
- Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) 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.
- K-Laser Class 4 Laser Therapy. If you suffer pain from an injury, arthritis, or other inflammation-based pain, I’d strongly encourage you to try out K-Laser therapy. It can be an excellent choice for many painful conditions, including acute injuries. By addressing the underlying cause of the pain, you will no longer need to rely on painkillers. K-Laser is a class 4 infrared laser therapy treatment that helps reduce pain, reduce inflammation, and enhance tissue healing—both in hard and soft tissues, including muscles, ligaments, or even bones.
The infrared wavelengths used in the K-Laser allow for targeting specific areas of your body, and can penetrate deeply into the body to reach areas such as your spine and hip. For more information about this groundbreaking technology, and how it can help heal chronic pain, please listen to my previous interview with Dr. Harrington.
- Chiropractic. Many studies have confirmed that chiropractic management is much safer and less expensive than allopathic medical treatments, especially when used for pain, such as low-back pain. Qualified chiropractic, osteopathic, and naturopathic physicians are reliable, as they have received extensive training in the management of musculoskeletal disorders during their course of graduate healthcare training, which lasts between four to six years. These health experts have comprehensive training in musculoskeletal management.
- Acupuncture can also effectively treat many kinds of pain. Research has discovered a "clear and robust" effect of acupuncture in the treatment of back, neck, and shoulder pain, osteoarthritis, and headaches.
- Physical and massage therapy has been shown to be as good as surgery for painful conditions such as torn cartilage and arthritis.
- Astaxanthin is 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 you 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. 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.18
- 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.
- 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.
- Medical cannabis has a long history as a natural analgesic, as mentioned.19 At present, 20 US states have legalized cannabis for medical purposes. Its medicinal qualities are due to high amounts (about 10-20 percent) of cannabidiol (CBD), medicinal terpenes, and flavonoids. As discussed in this previous post, varieties of cannabis exist that are very low in tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)—the psychoactive component of marijuana that makes you feel "stoned"—and high in medicinal CBD. The Journal of Pain,20 a publication by the American Pain Society, has a long list of studies on the pain-relieving effects of cannabis.
- Methods such as yoga, Foundation Training, acupuncture, meditation, hot and cold packs, and other mind-body techniques can also result in astonishing pain relief without any drugs.
- Grounding, or walking barefoot on the earth, may also provide a certain measure of pain relief by combating inflammation.