Nobody likes pain, and some of us will do just about anything to avoid it. I’m not fond of it myself, but I seldom take so-called pain relievers or any medications, for that matter. In fact, I have managed to avoid prescription drugs as part of my daily routine at the age of seventy, though I may be just one doctor’s appointment away from joining the millions who do.
But that’s another issue. We have over-the-counter pain relievers on the premises— aspirin, Tylenol, Advil and Aleve— but the pain has to be pretty bad for me to pop any of them. Some of it is just being stubborn, but most of it is an innate distrust of putting stuff in my body that interferes with what it is trying to tell me. If the pain gets really bad, keeping me from a healthful sleep or performing important functions, I will surrender to OTC pain relief. So I guess my body, at those times, is telling me this: “Take a pill, dummy!”
I’m sure there are others like me, but there are apparently those who are popping pain relievers at any sign of discomfort or irritation. I’m not saying that we should all tough it out and refrain from pain relievers. None of us really knows what others are feeling inside. My pain may not be like your pain, and I understand that.
My other take on pain relievers is the old axiom that anything too good to be true probably is. Drugs can be both lifesavers and life changers, a blessing for many of us, but they can also be destroyers of life, thanks to their addictive properties.
I’m bringing all of this up because of the mushrooming concern about prescription drug abuse, especially our collective view of opioids, now regarded to be in crisis mode. The villains are the likes of Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin and Fentanyl. The status from healthcare hero to villain in the national consciousness has happened in the span of two years. Hey, the word opioid is still not recognized in my computer’s spell-checker.
Back in the glory years between 2014 and 2016, prescriptions for Vicodin alone were around 130 million and Percocet and Oxycontin combined for about 50 million prescriptions. Some were getting prescriptions for two or more of the above. Consider that the population of the United States in 2016 was 323 million.
Two years ago, almost to the week, I underwent surgery for a bilateral knee replacement, or both knees as the same time. I had no idea what an opioid was at the time, and much of the health care community regarded them as godsends, with Medicare marching in step and covering their costs. They had been marketed as miraculous, and by extension harmless, by Big Pharmaceutical, with many physicians buying into their spiel. Surgeons were particularly vulnerable, because their skill set did not necessarily include in-depth knowledge of prescription drugs. All they knew was that they worked and their patients loved them. The horrors of their highly addictive potential had not yet exploded as a public issue.
I took opioids during my three days and two nights of recovery in the hospital, and I was sent home with my little plastic containers of at least two brands of opioids. In fact, at my first follow-up appointment some three weeks after the surgery, as I recall, the first thing I was asked was if I needed those prescriptions refilled. I didn’t. In fact, I stopped taking opioids virtually as soon as I got home. I was in pain, uncomfortable. Sleep consisted of fitful dozing. I took my prescribed pills the first night, and the pain had been reduced to discomfort. The medication seemed to be working. The day after, however, I decided I wasn’t going to take any more. I was aware Percocet and Oxcontin were highly sought by drug addicts and abusers, so that played a part in that decision. We also realized we should not keep them on the premises if they weren’t being used, because addicts were breaking into homes to get them. However, pain was still an obstacle in getting to sleep, which is critical to the healing process, so I did take Extra-Strength Tylenol at night for perhaps another week.
What I didn’t know was that, at the same time, back in 2016, thousands of people had become addicted or on their way of becoming addicted to the same opioids I had rejected. I was lucky, and I I’ll never know if things might have turned out differently had I continued taking those drugs. My decision was reinforced by a friend who underwent the same surgery exactly a week before. At about the three-week mark, he was having a number of problems, including incontinence and a fogginess he couldn’t shake. He decided to stop taking the opioids, and, even so soon after, went through withdrawal symptoms like sweating and nausea.
I bring all this up because it struck me, at the two-year anniversary of my surgery, how much has changed in terms of the public awareness of these drugs. At the end of 2015, about six weeks before my surgery, the National Institute on Drug Abuse now tells us that more than 33,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses that year. It was subsequently learned, according to the same source, that in 2015 some two million Americans “suffered from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers.”
The villain was stepping out of the shadows. The numbers because increasingly exposed and a crisis was belatedly exposed.