Last updated: November 27, 2023
The National Governor’s Association recently requested help from the federal government stemming the tide of the epidemic of painkiller abuse across the US. Days ago, the President declined that request.
Why are state governors so concerned with opioids when marijuana makes such great news? Painkillers cost businesses in their states billions of dollars each year. It’s one of the most commonly abused drugs in the US workplace. Opiates are highly addictive, but because of their effectiveness in treating pain, it’s also quite common for doctors to prescribe them for pain management.
Painkillers are effective, but dangerous, which is a combination that can lead to misinformation. What are some of the most common myths surrounding one of the most dangerous and common classes of drugs?
You need them to get better
Opiates do not have curative power. There’s a reason they are called “painkillers” and if dealing with pain is keeping you from feeling well, then of course, following a prescription should work, since that’s what they’re designed to do. This isn’t, however, an antibiotic, antihistamine, or anti-inflammatory. These are designed to do one thing and that’s reduce pain. Taking them for any other reason is misusing them, which is abuse.
Taking them in moderation is completely safe
Moderation is, sadly, not the key. No, not everyone gets addicted to painkillers, but some people do. Some people can use them long term and have no lasting effects. Some people use them for a short time and for the first time and quickly develop an addiction. There’s a reason opiates are a controlled substance. Using them as directed does not guarantee you won’t become addicted, which is why it’s important to both follow the prescription and follow up with doctors when the prescription has run its course.
They always work
Unfortunately, there is no “cure all” and though they are one of the most “over-prescribed” drugs available, they’re not the only ones and that’s because each medical situation is different. Indeed, one of the problems is that they work so well that doctors tend to go to that well too quickly which is why they are prescribed so often, but that’s because they tend to work so well. If a person isn’t seeing the intended effects, that’s not an invitation to take more to seek relief. Taking too much or for too long can lead to long lasting effects on your body’s endocrine system and affect your hormones, increase your risk to bone disease (osteoporosis), and cause infertility and loss of libido. So not only can the drugs not help, they do cause harm. Since it doesn’t treat the cause of the symptoms, taking them for long periods can reduce the effectiveness, which means you can become desensitized. Now you’re not only not better, but you have less option for feeling better, but because you’re addicted, you won’t care about that difference.
It’s just expensive and illegal because drug companies want to make money
Blame the “Pharma Bro” for this one. No, it’s not a conspiracy. Painkillers are expensive and illegal without a prescription because they are truly, extremely dangerous. Opioids are metabolized in the liver which means taking them with alcohol is risking death. These drugs do not work well with others which is why you can’t get them without seeing a doctor. This is one place where the war on drugs truly makes sense. It’s dangerous and it’s regulated with good reason.
If a doctor prescribes them, you’re safe
Doctor’s make mistakes. Remember, they’re considered over-prescribed because they tend to get used as a “catch-all” and “doctor shopping” tends to happen when other pain relief methods have failed. A prescription is no guarantee that a person won’t become addicted. No, not everyone becomes addicted, but enough do that it’s considered an epidemic by the CDC. There are pain management specialists for a reason. Not every doctor has the correct training to properly prescribe painkillers even if they’re aware of how effective they can be.
Using them in ways other than the doctor prescribes isn’t safe, either. Breaking them up, crushing them, snorting, injecting or taking more or less than the dosage recommended is not somehow safer simply because it was prescribed. There is no magic spell granted by the possession of a script.
It’s safe to keep my unused pills and use them later
Can you? You certainly can keep them, but unless you’re keeping them for the same injury, you have absolutely no legal protection to use them. That’s certainly hard to prove, but easier the further away from the prescription filling you get. The script can only be filled within one year of issue, and if you’re carrying them in something other than the bottle in which you received them from the pharmacist, you’ll have even more trouble. Some places have laws that don’t even allow you to carry them in your pockets with a current prescription if it’s not in the right kind of container.
This might fall into one of those “but everyone does it” ranges, but even if it were completely legal in every case you should consider some other factors. Having a “stash” makes you a target for thieves. It places people you know in danger of addiction—including yourself—and is a threat to children or other loved ones who might find and use the pills. Removing the labeling or storing it outside the prescription bottle makes misuse more likely in the future and may remove legal protection.
It’s true that it’s not an antibiotic and that the shelf life, considering proper storage and care might mean they’re safe beyond the printed expiration, but that’s not the same as “forever” and delayed effects or reduced efficacy might be problems that start happening soon after that expiry date.